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Series Preview: Cardinals vs. Phillies

Pardon me for not doing wrap ups of the last two games of the Cincinnati series. I spent a great deal of time trying to take something from that set other than bitter disappointment. But the Cardinals were simply flat and lathargic. I was disappointed by their effort and their execution. And I sure hope that the Birds, after losing their grip on first place, can quickly right the ship.

If the Cardinals don't have a burr under their saddle blanket, they sure ought to. After they played it straight following the garbage that led to an on-fight last season in Cincinnati, the Reds hit Albert Pujols with a questionable pitch in the top of the ninth inning Sunday. In the bottom of the inning, after letting the Birds back into a lopsided game, their closer showed up St. Louis players by mockingly waving bye-bye from the mound.

We ought to find out pretty quick if the Cardinals have any pride.

Unfortunately, things aren't going to get any easier. While I think the Reds are a bunch of loudmouthed pretenders, the visiting Phillies are the favorite far and wide to win the National League pennant.

The Phillies have a much celebrated starting rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Even thought All-Star second baseman Chase Utley hasn't played a game yet this season because of knee troubles, Philadelphia still has a punishing offense led by slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, speedy shortstop Jimmy Rollins and .340 hitting third sacker Placido Polanco.

Howard, a St. Louis native, has a .388 career batting average at Busch Stadium with eight home runs. He's also made a mark on the Cardinals with his $25 million a year contract that has helped to make the Redbirds' efforts to sign their own superstar first baseman, Albert Pujols, especially difficult.

At 25-14, the Phillies have the best record in the National League -- despite playing in the competitive East Division. Philadelphia is 12-7 on the road while the Cardinals are 10-9 at Busch Stadium. The Redbirds' current three-game losing streak is their longest of the season.

Pitching match-ups:

In the opener, the top pitching prize of the off-season free agency derby, Cliff Lee (2-3, 3.78) will take on the Cardinals' free agent addition, Jake Westbrook (2-3, 6.92). Lee has been a victim of bad luck. But don't be fooled by his win loss record. A more telling sign of his effectiveness is the fact that he has struck out 64 in 59 2/3 innings pitched against six walks. Lee won his most recent start, six innings against the Marlins in which he gave up three runs. Westbrook seemed like he had turned around a slow start to the season -- until he threw 2 1/3 crummy innings against the Cubs last week. Part of the problem was that he wasn't sharp after he tried to come back following an hour-long rain delay. But the truth of the matter is that he wasn't all that sharp before it. He seriously needs to bear down and keep the Phillies in the ball yard if the Birds are going to have a chance.

The Cardinals will face a familiar foe in the second game, longtime Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt (3-1, 3.33) who was hotly rumored last season to be headed to St. Louis in trade. Oswalt, who is 9-8 with a 3.38 lifetime ERA against St. Louis, asked to be traded to the Redbirds but, ultimately, he was sent to Philadelphia by Houston instead. He'll pitch against young St. Louis lefty Jaime Garcia (5-0, 1.89). Garcia has won his last two starts, allowing one run on 11 hits in 16 innings against the Brewers and Cubs. He's started two games against Philadelphia in the past, winning both of them with eight hits allowed in 15 innings.