Cardinals host Reds with NL Central lead only two games away

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals won three games over the weekend. The Chicago Cubs lost three games over the weekend.

And with that, there is a real race in the National League Central.

Want more proof? Look at what St. Louis manager Mike Matheny has done with his rotation. For the Tuesday night series opener against the Cincinnati Reds, Matheny is bypassing recent Triple-A call-up Jack Flaherty in favor of Lance Lynn, the team's most consistent pitcher this year.

Lynn (10-7, 2.94 ERA) hasn't won since Aug. 3, the last time he faced Cincinnati. Buthe hasn't exactly been pounded during this stretch of six winless starts. Lynn is 0-1 with five no-decisions, and he easily could have won twice with a little help from his bullpen and the offense.

In his start Thursday in San Diego, Lynn allowed one run on six hits over six innings, but Clayton Richard and a collection of Padres relievers blanked the Cardinals 3-0.

That was one of only three games St. Louis (75-68) has lost in its past 13, a streak of excellence that has brought the Cardinals within two games of Chicago for first place.

"We're in the thick of things, which is where you want to be at this time of year," Lynn said after the loss in San Diego. "If we keep winning games, I think we'll be all right. Everyone's ready to make a run, so let's see what we can do."

One other effect of moving Lynn up a day to open this series is that he now is lined up to start the finale of a weekend series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. That is one of seven remaining games between the Cardinals and their archrivals.

In his career against the Reds, Lynn is 10-4 with a 3.06 ERA in 20 outings, 17 of them starts. This year, he is 2-1 in three starts vs. Cincinnati, including the win last month at Great American Ball Park during which he allowed just one run in six innings.

The Reds (62-82) will counter with young right-hander Robert Stephenson (4-4, 5.15 ERA), whose poor overall stats belie what he has done inhis past six outings: 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA.

He is coming off a 9-3 win Sept. 5 over Milwaukee in Cincinnati, wherehe overcame allowing five walks in six innings. Stephenson gave up only four hits and a run, fanning seven. He struck out the side in the fourth to escape a bases-loaded jam.

Stephenson has faced St. Louis just twice in his brief career, losing a start and pitching to a 12.71 ERA over 5 2/3 innings. In his only game against them this year, a relief appearance, Stephenson walked six batters in 1 2/3 innings April 8 as Cincinnati lost 10-4.

While the Reds are playing out the string for a fourth straight year, they have been a difficult out for the Cardinals in 2017, winning eight of 13 previous meetings. However, they will be without leadoff hitter and center fielder Billy Hamilton (thumb).

Jose Peraza, normally a middle infielder, played center field for the first time this year Sunday and could see time there in the St. Louis series.

"I want to take any chance to be in the lineup," he said. "If center field is the spot, I want to play center field."

St. Louis also enters the Tuesday game 3 1/2 games behind the Colorado Rockies for the NL's second wild-card spot. The Milwaukee Brewers' 7-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night gave the Cardinals sole possession of second place in the Central.