Opposite dugout: Cardinals out to get upper hand in baseball’s tightest division race

cardinalslogo.jpgManager: Mike Matheny, third year
Record: 61-52
Last 10 games: 6-4
Who to watch: 1B Matt Adams (.313/.332/.500, 25 doubles, 12 HR, 49 RBIs); LF Matt Holliday (.265/.365/.419, 26 doubles, 12 HR, 58 RBIs); RHP Lance Lynn (11-8, 2.89 ERA, 1.28 WHIP); RHP John Lackey (12-7, 3.55 ERA, 1.22 WHIP)
Season series vs. O’s (2013): Did not play

Pitching probables
Aug. 8: Justin Masterson vs. Chris Tillman, 7 p.m., MASN HD
Aug. 9: John Lackey vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 4 p.m., MASN HD
Aug. 10: Lance Lynn vs. TBA, 1:30 p.m., MASN HD

Series breakdown
If you feel like the Orioles are playing under pressure at this stage of the season, just check out the Cardinals’ situation.

Baltimore sits in first place in the American League East, leading by five games for the largest division lead in baseball. But St. Louis arrives at Camden Yards in the tightest race in baseball.

With 49 games to go, the Cardinals are in second place in the National League Central, one game behind the Brewers, just a half-game ahead of the third-place Pirates and only three games ahead of the suddenly surging Reds.

Now, that’s pressure.

So the Cards come to Baltimore for the first time since sweeping a series at Camden Yards in 2011, looking to keep pace. Every game matters at this stage, especially with the Brewers opening a series with the NL-leading Dodgers - meaning the Cardinals could have an opportunity to end the weekend in first place with a good showing against the Orioles.

St. Louis will continue to depend on its solid pitching staff, one that got a bit of a makeover at the July 31 trade deadline.

The Cardinals rank ninth in the majors with a 3.45 ERA, sixth with a 3.41 starters’ ERA and 16th with a 3.53 bullpen ERA. Their last four games have been especially impressive, as the club has allowed exactly two runs in each contest, capping a stretch of four wins in five games.

The Orioles won’t have to see the best St. Louis has to offer, as ace Adam Wainwright doesn’t pitch in the series and 22-year-old Michael Wacha has been out since mid-June with a right shoulder injury.

But the Orioles will get to see both of the Cards’ new additions - right-handers Justin Masterson and John Lackey - and the team’s second-best healthy starter, Lance Lynn.

Masterson was acquired from the Indians on July 30 and struggled in his first start with his new team, allowing five runs in six innings. It has been a rough season for the 29-year-old, as he’s 5-6 with a 5.63 ERA in 20 starts. That marks a steep dropoff from last year, when he went 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA.

Masterson, who spent his entire career in the AL before the trade, has always had trouble with the Orioles. He’s 6-5 with a 5.04 ERA in 15 career outings (11 starts) against them. That’s his fourth-highest ERA against any AL opponent. He’s had even greater difficulty the last two seasons, allowing 12 runs in 13 innings for an 8.31 ERA over three starts against them. Masterson faces Chris Tillman in tonight’s series opener.

Lackey was acquired from the Red Sox for pitcher Joe Kelly and outfielder Allen Craig at the deadline. He had a nice debut for the Cards, holding Milwaukee to two runs in seven innings on Sunday. Overall this year, he’s 12-7 with a 3.55 ERA. He’s also pitched well of late, going 3-1 with a 2.33 ERA over his last four starts.

Lackey has posted solid career numbers against the Orioles, pitching to a 3.70 ERA in 26 starts with his 14 wins against them matching his third-most over any opponent. Those numbers haven’t held true this year, however, as he went 1-2 with a 7.02 ERA in three starts against the Orioles as a member of the Red Sox. Ubaldo Jimenez returns from the disabled list Saturday to take on Lackey.

And then the Orioles face their greatest challenge in the series finale when they face Lynn, who’s in the middle of a career season amid an already solid career. The 27-year-old is 11-8 with a 2.89 ERA (ninth-best in the NL) through 23 starts, bringing his strong career ERA down to 3.58.

Lynn has been outstanding since the beginning of July, going 3-2 with a 1.63 ERA in six starts, holding opponents to a .204 average and .600 OPS. He has allowed seven earned runs and struck out 36 batters in 38 2/3 innings during that time. He has only pitched once against the Orioles in his career, and that came in relief. He will likely face Bud Norris or Kevin Gausman on Sunday.

While St. Louis’ bullpen has only been so-so, the centerpiece has been set-up man Pat Neshek, an Orioles farmhand in 2012. The 33-year-old right-hander is sporting a 5-0 record and 0.76 ERA in 52 appearances. Closer Trevor Rosenthal might be 1-6, but he has also been good with a 3.19 ERA and 35 saves in 39 chances.

Keeping the Orioles off the scoreboard will be the key for the Cards, as scoring runs has been a challenge all year.

St. Louis’ 418 runs and 75 homers are the second-lowest totals in the majors. However, they do rank sixth in the NL with a .251 average and eighth with a .690 OPS.

No one on the club has more homers that shortstop Jhonny Peralta’s 15 and no one has driven in more runs than left fielder Matt Holliday’s 58. Only three Cardinals have hit at least 10 homers with Holliday and first baseman Matt Adams each hitting 12. Adams leads the team with a .313 average and an .832 OPS.

Second baseman Kolten Wong is coming off his first career multi-homer game, and has hit three homers with six RBIs in his last five contests.

The Cardinals have gotten to this point with pitching and incredible consistency. They’ve lost no more than four in a row all year, which they’ve done only once.

So it should be an entertaining meeting between two teams in the thick of playoff races. The Orioles have some padding, however, while the Cardinals’ margin for error is minimal.

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