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Series preview: Cardinals @ Reds

A couple of weeks ago the Cardinals weekend series in Cincinnati looked like another chance for St. Louis to pad its record against one of the National League Central's weak sisters.

But, after losing seven of their last 10 games, suddenly the Redbirds find themselves in a battle with the Reds for first place. Entering Friday's game, the Cardinals -- who at one point had a five-game lead in the division -- are nursing a half-game advantage.

The Reds have won seven of their last 10 games -- including the last five in a row. While the last place Astros were sweeping the Cardinals, Cincinnati was beating up on the Pirates.

St. Louis rookie Jaime Garcia (3-2, 1.18) will take the hill against Aaron Harang(2-4, 6.02) in the opener. In his last start, Garcia pitched six innings and allowed only one run... But was tagged with a loss against Pittsburgh. Garcia has the third-lowest ERA in the National League. In the three games of his six starts that the Cardinals have lost, Garcia received a total of two runs of support. Harang is 2-1 with a 3.37 ERA over his last three starts.

In game two on Saturday, Adam Wainwright (5-1, 2.08) will square off against Mike Leake(3-0, 3.10). Somehow, Wainwright is the Cardinals' hitters' good luck charm. The punchless Birds scored 10 or more runs in two of his last three starts -- in the other they only scored one to give him his only loss of the year. In 52 innings pitched this season, Wainwright has only given up 35 hits. Leake no-hit the Cubs into the sixth inning in his last start and have won the last four games he started. He's allowed 21 hits in his last 27 innings, and promises to be a handful for the Redbirds based on their lack of exposure to him.

Hard luck starter Brad Penny (3-3, 1.70) faces Bronson Arroyo(2-2, 5.36) in the Sunday finale. The Birds have scored 14 runs in Penny's seven starts, the second worst run support for any pitcher in the National League. That's why he's a .500 pitcher with the fifth-best ERA in the NL. Arroyo has shown flashes of his former brilliance this season, going deep into games and giving his team a chance to win.