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Series Preview: Cardinals @ Reds

Since when does a Cardinals-Cubs series serve as little more than an appetizer for a St. Louis-Cincinnati tilt?

I guess since Brandon Phillips decided to become the biggest loudmouth this side of a professional wrestler. It's amazing that he has time to play baseball anymore with all the obnoxious interviews and inciting social networking he's been up to lately...But I digress.

The real reason for the heat being turned up under this rivalry is that the Cardinals (22-16, 1st place NL Central) and Reds (20-17, second place NL Central)are the clubs most likely to win the division. The Reds fancy themselves as the title holder based on the fact that their one championship in the last 15 years came last season. But the fact of the matter is that the Cardinals have been the king of the hill in the Central for more than a decade. And, while the Reds took advantage of the Birds' injury woes last year, St. Louis won two thirds of the meetings between the clubs last year. And they won two of the three meetings at Busch Stadium in 2011.

The Cardinals haven't lost a series since they were beaten two out of three by the Giants during the second week of the season. They're 9-6 against division foes and are 12-7 on the road. The Reds are 15-10 against Central rivals but are only one game over .500 at home with a 10-9 record.

St. Louis features two of the top three hitters for average in the National League going into perhaps the coziest park in the senior circuit. Matt Holliday is batting .390 after a 2-for-4 day with a homer in the finale against the Cubs. Lance Berkman, who is the visiting player with the most homers and RBIs in Cincinnati's ballpark, is hitting .357 but is in the middle of a 1-for-16 slump. The dry spell dropped Berkman to third behind Dodgers outfielder Andre Eithier's .366 mark. Berkman is tied for second in the NL with 10 homers.

Joey Votto is the Reds top hitter with a .349 batting average, five homers and 21 RBIs. Phillips is second with a .313 average, four homers and 22 RBIs.

Pitching match-ups:

Kyle Lohse (4-2, 2.24) will take on Bronson Arroyo (3-3, 3.68) in the opener. Lohse hasn't had a stinker of a start so far this season. But he was tagged with a loss in his most recent outing against the Marlins. He pitched eight innings and allowed one run on six hits. But the Birds' batsmen couldn't dent the scoreboard in what eventually panned out to be a 4-0 loss. The Reds have lost four of the last five games that Arroyo has started. But that's not necessarily his fault. He allowed one run on seven hits in 7 1/3 innings in his last start against the Cubs on May 7.

Kyle McClellan (5-0, 3.30) faces Johnny Cueto (1-0, 0.00) in the middle game of the three-game set. McClellan gave up nine runs on 14 hits in 10 2/3 innings prior to his most recent start against Milwaukee. But he tamed the Brewers to the tune of four hits and one run allowed in eight innings hurled. McClellan needs to stay sharp, however, because Milwaukee's offense has been terrible and Cincy's park is very unforgiving. Cuetto has made one start since returning from injury. He pitched five shutout innings against the Cubs. Hopefully the Cardinals will give Cueto some payback for injuring Chris Carpenter and and Jason LaRue last season by kicking them with his spikes during the scuffle between Yadier Molina and Philips.

In the finale, Chris Carpenter (1-2, 4.32) will toe the rubber against Travis Wood (2-3, 5.28). Carpenter finally got a win in his most recent outing in Chicago. But it took a rally in the bottom of his last frame to get it done. He's been hammered lately, allowing 10 or more hits in each of his last three starts. Wood, a lefty, has been something of an all or nothing starter. In his last two starts he's logged 21 2/3 innings while allowing 11 hits and two runs. But in the three starts before that he gave up 16 earned runs on 24 hits over 13 innings. Wood has a problem with walks, so the Cardinals batters need to be patient.

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