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Series Preview: Cardinals @ Reds

Fortunately, the two most meaningless days of summer -- the inexcusable two-day break after the All-Star Game that was placed on the schedule of all but a few major league teams -- and it's time to get back underway.

The Cardinals start the second "half" of the season -- which is actually about 60 percent completed -- against the Reds in Cincinnati.

While the Birds are in first place with a 49-43 record and the Reds find themselves in fourth place behind St. Louis, Milwaukee and Pittsbugh, things are closer than they might appear. Cincinnati is only four games out, with a 45-47 mark. So a repeat of the April sweep the Redbirds were subjected to in their last visit to the Queen City could turn the Central Division on its ear quite quickly.

The Cardinals righted their ship in the last two games before the break to make their record 5-5 in the last 10 games while the Reds stumbled to a 3-7 mark. St. Louis is 24-22 on the road while Cincinnati is 23-21 at home.

Albert Pujols is hitting .300 with a double and a home run in five games back from a fractured arm. That includes five hits in his last eight at bats before the All-Star Break. Lance Berkman is only hitting .231 over his last 10 games. But he's hit four homers in that stretch -- and he's walked six times to indicate bad luck is more to blame for his average than getting a good look at pitches. Matt Holliday, his early exit from the Home Run Derby excluded, is hitting the heck of the ball lately. He's batting .333 with four homers over his last 10 contests.

For the Reds, on a daily basis it's pretty much the Joey Votto Show. The 2010 National League MVP is hitting .405 with 2 homers over Cincinnati's last 10 games. Jay Bruce has been a model of inconsistency. He hit .237 with four homers in April, .342 with 12 homers in May, .217 with two homers in June and is batting .250 with three homers in July.

Pitching Match-ups:

The Cardinals have decided to go with their worst starter, Jake Westbrook (7-4, 5.34), to start the second half of the season against Cincinnati's best hurler, Johnny Cueto (5-3, 1.96). It may not make a lot of sense at first glance. But it sets the Birds up for a pair of games with the pitching in their favor. And it allows the weary St. Louis starters to get some extra rest before the big second half push. Westbrook was pounded by the Reds July 6. He gave up seven runs on eight hits including three homers in 4 1/3 innings. Cueto pitched eight innings of one-run ball the last time he faced the Cardinals -- but lost.

Chris Carpenter (4-7, 3.85) will pitch the second game against Bronson Arroyo (7-7, 5.58). Carpenter has won his last three decisions and the Cardinals have won his last four starts. His most recent outing against Cincinnati came July 4 when he pitched eight shut-out innings in what turned out to be an exciting 1-0 win. Arroyo pitched the only game the Reds won in their most recent set with St. Louis. But that doesn't mean he was good. He was tagged for six hits and five earned runs in 6 1/3 innings in an eventual 9-8 Cincinnati win in extra innings.

Jaime Garcia (9-3, 3.22) will start the finale against Homer Bailey (3-4, 4.12). Garcia allowed the Reds two hits and one run over six innings in his last start against Cincinnati and he's 5-0 with a 3.82 ERA against the Reds over the course of his career. This will be his first start as a multi-millionaire after signing a four-year, $27.5-million contract over the All-Star Break. Bailey is 1-4 with a 6.04 ERA in his career against the Cardinals.