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Nats take aim at NL East title in St. Louis

Neither Kyle Lohse or Jordan Zimmermann would likely be too excited about a possible playoff series between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cardinals are still trying to lock up their berth to the postseason and turn to Lohse on Saturday evening in the second of three straight meetings with the NL East-leading Nats, who have a chance to lock up the division.

Lohse and Zimmermann squared off in a Sept. 1 meeting in Washington and neither had outings to remember in a high-scoring 10-9 victory for the Cards that netted both starters no-decisions.

The right-handed Lohse had the longer effort of the two, going 5 2/3 innings but yielding eight runs -- five earned -- on nine hits. Lohse gave up one of his two homers to Adam LaRoche, a two-run shot, in the second inning after having already been touched for four runs in the first.

Zimmermann, though, could not hold that early lead, charged with eight runs over 3 2/3 innings. He served up two-run homers to David Freese and Matt Holliday in consecutive innings before getting charged with another four runs in the fourth.

The Nationals right-hander remained winless in his career versus the Cardinals, 0-2 with a 10.71 earned run average in four starts, while Lohse is 4-2 with a 5.16 ERA lifetime in this series.

That outing was a rare hiccup this season for Lohse, who is 16-3 with a 2.77 ERA in 32 starts this season. He has allowed three runs or fewer in nine of 10 and 19 of his last 21 starts while losing just one of his past 11 decisions.

The 33-year-old won his second straight start on Sunday at the Chicago Cubs, giving up three runs on five hits and a walk over six innings while fanning five.

Lohse is 8-1 with a 2.12 ERA in 15 outings at home this year.

Zimmermann, meanwhile, has settled down since his rough outing versus the Cards. He is 3-0 with a 2.19 ERA in four starts since and won his second straight outing on Monday, holding the Milwaukee Brewers to a run on four hits and two walks with seven strikeouts.

"I was throwing the fastball and getting ahead, and when I do that, I feel like I can control the game," Zimmermann said. "I'm glad I'm having a few good ones here as the regular season is coming to a close."

Zimmermann, 26, is 12-8 with a 2.90 ERA over a career-high 31 starts and 189 1/3 innings.

Washington was routed in Friday's opener by a 12-2 margin, trailing by eight runs after the first two innings, but still saw its magic number to win the NL East fall to two thanks to the Atlanta Braves' loss to the New York Mets. The Nats lead the Braves by four games for first place with five to play and can lock up the crown with a victory tonight and another Braves setback

The Cardinals, meanwhile, lowered their magic number for clinching the league's second wild card spot to three. They are three games up on the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are hosting the Colorado Rockies this weekend.

"We have to take things one game at a time and not get ahead of ourselves," said St. Louis' Allen Craig, who went 4-for-4 and drove in two runs. "We need to just focus on playing god baseball and get into the playoffs."

The Cards, who have won nine of their last 11, did lose Holliday in the sixth inning after he was hit by a pitch on his left elbow. He has a contusion and is considered day-to-day.

Roger Bernadina hit a solo home run and LaRoche drove in the other run for the Nationals, who had won their previous two and are tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the best record in the majors.

"It's getting down to the wire and we know that," noted Washington starter Edwin Jackson. "We like our chances, but nothing is done until it's sealed up so we're just staying positive and will keep playing hard."

Jackson lasted just 1 1/3 innings, yielding nine runs -- eight earned -- on six hits and four walks to take the loss.

The Nationals have won nine of their past 13 versus the Cardinals, including three of four at home from Aug. 30-Sept. 2.