ST. LOUIS -- Through most of the season's first two months, the St. Louis Cardinals have spoken confidently about the run they believed was about to occur, choosing not to dwell on inconsistent starting pitching and defense that left it double digits behind the streaking Chicago Cubs in the National League Central.
If last week was any indication, St. Louis might be ready to pose a challenge to its rivals from the north.
A season-high five-game winning streak, capped by a sweep of Pittsburgh at PNC Park over the weekend, has the Cardinals a season-high seven games over .500 at 35-28 as they welcome the Houston Astros to town Tuesday night for a two-game interleague series.
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St. Louis outscored Pittsburgh 22-7 in its just-completed series, teaming its powerful offense with better pitching and defense.
Starters Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Mike Leake each completed seven innings, with Martinez coming within two outs of his first complete game in the majors.
And the defense, a nagging weakness in April and May, has given opponents fewer four-out innings in a stretch which has seen the Cardinals capture 11 wins in 15 games.
"Early in the season, we didn't figure it out, but right now, we are rolling," catcher Yadier Molina said after Sunday's 8-3 decision over the Pirates. "We're playing good baseball. We're doing the little things -- and we are pitching better. That's the key."
While St. Louis appears to have righted its ship, Houston (30-35) is still searching to replicate the formula that enabled it to reach the American League playoffs last year.
After winning six of seven, including a sweep of AL West rival Oakland, the Astros have dropped five of seven. The most recent loss was a 5-0 decision Sunday at Tampa Bay as 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel fell to 3-9 with a 5.54 earned run average.
The good news for Houston is that it might regain the services of shortstop Carlos Correa Tuesday night. Correa missed the series in Tampa Bay with a sprained left ankle suffered Thursday at Texas.
"He's feeling a lot better," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said to mlb.com. "I wanted to keep him off his feet one more day ... but we're certainly shooting for Tuesday."
Righthander Doug Fister (6-3, 3.34) starts for Houston Tuesday night opposite lefthander Jaime Garcia (4-5, 3.89). Fister has won five straight decisions, allowing only one run in 12 innings during two starts this month.
Meanwhile, Garcia struggled in a no-decision at Cincinnati Wednesday night, getting pounded for 13 hits and five runs in 4 2/3 innings. But the Cardinals' offense bailed him out, outslugging the Reds 12-7.
Wednesday night's series finale matches the Astros' Collin McHugh (5-5, 5.22) and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright (5-4, 5.21).
This is the first regular season meeting between the former NL Central rivals and first since St. Louis admitted to hacking into Houston's scouting and personnel computer base last June. The revelation led to the dismissal of Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa.