Opposite dugout: Cardinals heading for third straight division crown as World Series favorites

cardinals-logo.jpgManager: Mike Matheny (4th season)

Record: 84-46

Last 10 games: 7-3

Who to watch: RF Jason Heyward (.291/.349/.442 with 11 HR, 48 RBIs), 1B Matt Carpenter (.262/.361/.467 with 20 HR, 69 RBIs), SS Jhonny Peralta (.276/.335/.429 with 16 HR, 58 RBIs), RHP Michael Wacha (15-4, 2.69 ERA), RHP Trevor Rosenthal (41 saves, 1.52 ERA)

Season series vs. Nationals: 2-1

Pitching probables:

Aug. 31: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP John Lackey, 8:15 p.m., MASN2
Sept. 1: RHP Joe Ross vs. RHP Carlos Martinez, 8:15 p.m., MASN2
Sept. 2: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Michael Wacha, 8:15 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Cardinals:

The Cardinals just keep winning on their way to their third straight National League Central championship. They hold the best record in all of baseball at 84-46, four games better than the Royals, while holding on to a 4 1/2-game lead over the Pirates in the Central. Th Cards have won seven of their last 10 and are 46-19 at home. They went into the All-Star break at 56-33 and are 28-13 so far for the second half of the season.

As a team, the Cards rank fifth in the National League with a .254 batting average and .321 on-base percentage. While the rest of their offensive numbers don't stick out too much, their pitching does. St. Louis' pitching staff's 2.64 ERA is the best in all of baseball and the only team ERA under 3.00. Their have given up the fewest runs in the majors, both overall (387) and earned (348), and their bullpen has recorded a major league-best 54 saves.

The Cardinals' production comes from the big names in their lineup. Right fielder Jason Heyward has made an impact in his first season in St. Louis. Heyward is slashing .291/.349/.442 with 11 home runs and 48 RBIs. First baseman Matt Carpenter has added a .262/.361/.467 slash line with a team-best 20 homers and 69 RBIs. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta has contributed a .276/.335/.429 line with 16 longballs and 58 RBIs.

Yadier Molina is batting .282, which is third-best among major league catchers, while also driving in 58 runs. Second baseman Kolten Wong and utility man Mark Reynolds have added some pop to the lineup, combining for 23 home runs and 93 RBIs to fill the void left by left fielder Matt Holliday's absence. Holliday has had two stints in the disabled list due to right quad injuries this season, but was re-evaluated this past weekend and is eyeing a return before season's end.

John Lackey will start this series at Busch Stadium for the Cardinals. Lackey is 11-8 with a 2.92 ERA on the season and 4-3 with a 2.77 ERA since the All-Star break. He got a little roughed up against the Nationals earlier this season when he pitched 5 2/3 innings, giving up eight hits, five runs (all in the third inning), one walk and four strikeouts in a no-decision. Despite those five runs in one inning, the Cardinals got the 7-5 victory. Lackey is 8-3 with a 1.91 ERA at home this season.

Carlos Martinez brings his 13-6 record and 2.91 ERA to start the second game of this series. Martinez went into the All-Star break at 10-3 with a 2.52 ERA, but has gone 3-3 with a 3.80 ERA in the second half. He is 6-3 with a 3.14 ERA at home, which is slightly worse than his numbers on the road. Martinez has never earned a decision in four career starts against the Nationals despite his 7.36 ERA against them, which is his third-highest against any opponent.

Michael Wacha will finish off this three-game set against Max Scherzer on Wednesday. The right-hander's 15-4 record is good for the fourth-most wins in the National League to go along with his 2.69 ERA. The first-time All-Star is 5-1 with a 2.16 ERA in eight starts since the break. Back on April 23, Wacha pitched seven innings and gave up just five hits and one run with two walks and six strikeouts in a 4-1 win over the Nationals. He is 2-1 with a 0.79 ERA in three career starts against Washington.

If you didn't notice, all three of St. Louis' starters this series have double-digit wins and ERAs under 3.00. That is why the Cardinals are one of the favorites to win the World Series this year and that is how they are going to ride out the rest of the season. They have just enough consistency at the plate to support their excellent pitching staff, who can shut down the best of them. The Cards love to live by the mantra "They can't beat you if they don't score."

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