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Series Preview: Cardinals vs Astros

Despite something of a soft schedule in recent weeks, the Cardinals have been unable to create any seperation from the other contenders in the National League Central Division.

Now it's put up or shut up time.

The sad sack Houston Astros have pulled into town for a four-game series and the Redbirds simply must dominate them or else they'll have fumbled away another opportunity to break away from the pack.

The Astros are 33-68 on the season and have fallen 20 games of the pace in the NL Central despite the fact that the three teams tied at the top are a yawn-worth five games over the .500 mark. Houston has lost seven of its last 10 games and is 16-32 in road games. The Astros are 15-29 against Central Division competition.

The Birds are 6-2 against the Astros this season with former Houston slugger Lance Berkman leading the way. Berkman, hitting .288 with 27 homers overall, has a .462 average with five homers and 12 batted in against his former club in seven games this season.

The typical Astros starting lineup only has 41 combined home runs -- and don't forget they play in a park with a ridiculous left field home run porch. Hunter Pence, who tops Astros regulars with a .307 batting average, also leads Houston with 11 homers. With a lack of three-run homers, centerfielder Michael Borne tries to create some action with his legs. He's got 37 stolen bases in 43 tries to go along with a .301 mark at the plate.

Pitching match-ups:

Houston sends J.A. Happ (4-11, 5.88) will take on Kyle McClellan (6-6, 4.34) in the opener. Happ is 1-5 with a 5.82 ERA in his career against St. Louis. While he won his last start, his previous seven decisions were all losses. McClellan has faded terribly over the last six weeks. But, hopefully, the Birds' efforts to maximize McClellan's rest will pay off. The Cardinals have lost McClellan's last seven consecutive starts and the rumors are rampant that the club would like to trade for a starter and put McClellan back into his familiar role in the bullpen.

Brett Myers (3-10, 4.74) will face Jake Westbrook (8-4, 5.04) in the second game of the set. Myers, a frequent subject of trade rumors lately, has lost four decisions in a row and six of his last seven. He's 6-4 with a 4.64 ERA in his career against St. Louis. Westbrook has been up and down all season. He started off terribly, got hot for a month or so and then fell apart again. He made what may be his best start of the season in his most recent outing against the Mets: Eight innings, four hits, two earned runs. Hopefully he can keep things going.

The third game will be started by the immortal Bud Norris (5-7, 3.70) for Houston and Chris Carpenter (6-7, 3.73) for St. Louis. Norris is 6-2 with a 2.45 ERA in his career against the Cardinals for reasons known only to God. He's a 20-20 pitcher with a 4.40 ERA overall. Carpenter has won five decisions in a row since getting off to a terribly unlucky 1-7 start. He's 4-0 with a 2.31 ERA over the last month.

In the finale Wandy Rodriguez (6-7, 3.60) will square off against Jaime Garcia (10-4, 3.01). Rodriguez is another guy whose name has been linked to contenders as the trade deadline nears. He's 5-11 with a 4.02 ERA against St. Louis over the course of his career. He's lost three of his last four including his most recent start -- a seven-inning outing against the Cubs in which he only surrendered two runs. Garcia is 0-2 against the Astros with a 5.87 ERA. He's 6-1 at home this season with a 1.14 ERA.