Preview: Blake Snell tries for another strong start for Rays in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS -- There were calls for a fresh face to make Saturday night's start for the St. Louis Cardinals, such as minor league sensation Jack Flaherty or even John Gant.

But manager Mike Matheny has opted to give Mike Leake another crack at getting big league hitters out, something he has failed to do with alarming consistency since carrying the National League's lowest earned run average into Memorial Day.

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Leake's outing against the Tampa Bay Rays in Busch Stadium might be a do-or-die outing of sorts for him, at least this year. His ERA has gone up in every month, reaching an untenable 10.31 in August.

While factors out of his control haven't helped -- Leake disclosed late last month that last year's attack of shingles has affected his strength, and the defense behind him hasn't always been crisp -- he hasn't been close to the same pitcher over the last three months that he was to start the year.

Sunday night's 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at the Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pa., was a case in point. Leake (7-12, 4.16 ERA) worked just three innings, allowing six runs off eight hits with no walks and three strikeouts.

"Just looking over all options and know that if we give Mike the ball, we have a good chance of seeing a lot of the things that we saw early in the season," Matheny said. "He was one of the better pitchers in the league during that time. We just have to get him right and back in that direction."

Another short start by Leake would be crippling for St. Louis (64-64). Its bullpen had to cover 17 outs Friday night because Michael Wacha was cuffed for nine hits and five runs in losing his third straight start.

The only positive on the mound for the Cardinals was Ryan Sherriff. In his big league debut, Sherriff pitched three scoreless innings, giving up two hits and fanning four.

"I was numb through the whole thing; it was just awesome," he said. "It was a great experience."

But Sherriff's work wasn't enough to keep St. Louis from losing for the eighth time in 11 games. It remains 4 1/2 games behind the first place Chicago Cubs in the NL Central and five games back of Colorado for the NL's second wild card.

Despite winning 7-3 to up its record to 64-66, Tampa Bay remained three games behind Minnesota for the American League's second wild-card spot. And it again had to call on its overworked bullpen for 16 outs, the second time in three nights that's happened.

That means the pressure is on Blake Snell (2-6, 4.42) to produce the kind of start he had on Sunday. Snell dominated Seattle in a 3-0 win at Tropicana Field, limiting the Mariners to two hits and two walks over seven innings and fanning eight.

"We're going to need some big starts to give us length," Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Snell.

"We have a lot of confidence in our bullpen, because we have to keep going to them."