Cardinals host Reds to begin key stretch

The St. Louis Cardinals have a chance over the next two weeks to put themselves in position to win their first division title since 2009.

The Cardinals begin a string of 13 straight games against the other two contending clubs in the NL Central, starting on Monday night with the opener of a three-game set versus the Cincinnati Reds.

St. Louis is even with Pittsburgh atop the division standings, with the clubs holding identical 76-54 victories after losses on Sunday. Cincinnati is 2 1/2 games of the pace, having also lost to close out the weekend.

Each of the Cards' next 13 games are against either the Pirates or Reds, meaning they have a chance to open up an advantage atop the division if they can take advantage.

St. Louis will have to play better than it did on Sunday, when it lost 5-2 to Atlanta.

Lance Lynn was touched for four runs on nine hits over seven innings as the Cardinals missed out on a four-game sweep with only their second loss in nine games.

"It was still a good series for us," said Allen Craig, who paced St. Louis with three hits and an RBI.

The Reds would love to be a thorn in the Cardinals' side, but haven't had much success over the club in the past year's worth of games. Cincinnati has lost six straight series to St. Louis since a three-game sweep at home last July, their longest series losing streak to the Cards since dropping eight in a row from June 24, 2003-Aug. 18, 2004.

The Cardinals have won eight of 12 meetings this year.

The Reds will visit the Cards and Colorado Rockies for three games each before returning home to host St. Louis for four games. They are coming off a 4-3 homestand, dropping the rubber match of a three-game set to Milwaukee on Sunday.

Greg Reynolds stepped in for an injured Tony Cingrani and was serviceable in the 3-1 loss, giving up two runs over six innings. However, the Reds did not score until Joey Votto's ninth-inning homer.

"When we lose at this point to any team, we feel it's a missed opportunity, because we feel like we're one of the best teams in the league," Reds outfielder Jay Bruce said. "Bottom line, it comes down to having to play better."

Cincinnati could have the edge on the mound in this opener. While it sends out Mike Leake for his 26th start of the season, St. Louis rookie Tyler Lyons will make just his eighth career start and first since July 30.

Leake is 1-1 with a 6.26 earned run average in four starts this month, though he did win for the first time since July 24 with Wednesday's 10-7 decision over Arizona. The righty retired the first 10 batters faced and had an eight- run lead before giving up four runs in the fourth inning. However, he kept the Diamondbacks off the board for another two innings before his exit.

"It was a tough one being up 8-0 and then it ended up being a stressful game," Leake said. "It stinks but at least we came away with it."

Leake is 11-5 with a 3.12 ERA on the year and that includes a 7-1 mark and 2.26 ERA in 13 road assignments. However, the 25-year-old has lost both of his 2013 outings versus the Cardinals, giving up seven runs over five innings in a loss on Aug. 4.

One of Lyons' starts this year came in Cincinnati on June 8, but he dropped a 4-2 decision. The 25-year-old southpaw was charged with four runs over 5 1/3 innings, giving up solo homers to Bruce and Devin Mesoraco.

Lyons was recalled last week to add an extra arm to the bullpen, but slides into the rotation due to Jake Westbrook's strained lower back. He is 2-4 with a 5.09 ERA for the Cards.