Opposite dugout: Cardinals keeping pace in NL Central with NL-leading offense

cardinals-logo.jpgManager: Mike Matheny (5th season)

Record: 12-10

Last 10 games: 5-5

Who to watch: LF Jeremy Hazelbaker (.310/.344/.690 with 5 HR, 13 RBIs), C Yadier Molina (.333/.422/.436 with 10 RBIs), RF Stephen Piscotty (4 HR, 15 RBIs), RHP Carlos Martinez (4-0, 1.93 ERA), RHP Seung Hwan Oh (1.50 ERA in 12 IP)

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting (4-2 in 2015)

Pitching probables:

April 29: RHP Stephen Strasburg vs. RHP Mike Leake, 8:15 p.m., MASN2
April 30: RHP Joe Ross vs. LHP Jaime Garcia, 2:15 p.m., MASN
May 1: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Carlos Martinez, 2:15 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Cardinals:

The Cardinals are no longer the sole powerhouse in the National League Central. This has been the case for a couple of seasons now, as the Pirates have been consistently competitive, and the Cubs had a resurgent 2015, but the Cards were still always the team to beat. Not anymore.

St. Louis has been in first place in the Central at this point in the season in six of the last seven years while ranking second in 2014. Today, they are third behind Chicago and Pittsburgh. That could be attributed to their early 5-7 record against division foes. The Cards were swept by the Bucs in three games to start the season and lost two of three to the Cubbies at home, while only winning two three-game home series against the sub-.500 Brewers and Reds. St. Louis is 7-3 in games outside the division.

Offensively, the Redbirds are raking. They lead the majors in runs, RBIs, slugging and OPS; rank second in home runs, batting average and on-base percentage; and third in hits. Pitching-wise, St. Louis isn't doing too bad, either, ranking fifth in the NL in ERA and batting average against, while giving up the third-fewest home runs.

The Cardinals are being led by two outfielders: 25-year-old Stephen Piscotty and 28-year-old rookie Jeremy Hazelbaker. Piscotty has knocked in 15 runs to go along with his four homers, while Hazelbaker has a team-leading five longballs with his 13 RBIs. Catcher Yadier Molina has a .333 average and .422 OBP. However, it's a couple of veteran Cards who are off to sluggish starts. Third baseman Matt Carpenter is only batting .241 and outfielder Matt Holliday is hitting .239, though he's been nagged by leg cramps lately.

Offseason free agent signee Mike Leake starts tonight's series opener. He's been off to a tough start to the season at 0-2 and with a 5.64 ERA, and the Cardinals have lost three of Leake's first four outings. He is 3-3 with a 4.78 ERA against the Nationals in his career. Saturday starter Jaime Garcia is just 1-1 with a 3.24 ERA, but has some impressive stats behind that. He hasn't given up a home run in his first four starts and pitched a complete-game shutout of the Brewers on April 14. The Cards hope the lefty's success against the Nationals carries over to tomorrow, with a 4-1 record and 2.88 ERA against D.C. in his career. Carlos Martinez, who starts Sunday's finale, is the Cardinals' best pitcher right now. He's off to a 4-0 start with a 1.93 ERA. Impressive, yes, but he has also received a lot of offensive help in his outings. Sunday will be his first start against the Nationals, against whom Martinez has a 7.36 ERA against over four career relief appearances.

Last year, the Cardinals benefited from the Nationals blowing late leads in two out of three games at Busch Stadium, despite Ryan Zimmerman's best efforts. Casey Janssen took the losses in both of those games, so if the Cards find themselves in late-inning deficits this time around, they'll need to get past a new-look Nats bullpen, which is posting a NL-best 2.44 ERA.

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