Reds try to gain ground on NL Central-leading Cards

The Cincinnati Reds will try and make up some ground in the National League Central standings on Friday when they host the division- leading St. Louis Cardinals for the opener of a three-game set at Great American Ball Park.

The Reds entered Friday three games back of St. Louis, having dropped two straight and three of four. They are coming off Wednesday's 12-4 setback to the Rockies, as Cincinnati scored all four of its runs in the first inning. Pedro Villarreal was chased after 3 2/3 innings as he allowed six runs on 10 hits.

Second baseman Brandon Phillips has been out this week with a bruised left forearm but said he expects to return for Friday's series opener. Phillips was quick to credit the first-place Cards.

"I feel like the Cardinals are the best team in baseball right now," said Phillips. "They're a great team. Those are the type of teams we have to step our game up, and I'm glad I'm going to be able to play on Friday. I'm really looking forward to it. I think everybody on our team is looking forward to it. That shows where you really are when you play against the best teams."

The Cardinals do indeed own the best record in the majors, at 39-21. Still, they have not been able to create much separation from the Reds.

"It seems like every time we win, check the scoreboard and they win too," said Cardinals shortstop Daniel Descalso. "That's a testament to the team they have over there. (Manager Dusty Baker) has got them playing well, and they're not going to let us run away with it."

While the Reds were off on Thursday, St. Louis padded its division lead with a 12-8 win over Arizona. The Cardinals belted a season-high five home runs, as Matt Holliday went 2-for-3 with a homer and David Freese extended his hitting streak to 16 games.

Taking the hill for St. Louis is Adam Wainwright, who tossed his third complete game of the season against the Giants on Saturday. Wainwright gave up just one run and struck out 10. He has walked only six batters all season and leads the majors with a 14-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. The right-hander is 4-1 with a 1.83 ERA over his last five outings.

Reds starter Mike Leake has also been quite impressive of late, posting a minuscule 0.33 ERA over his last four starts. Leake has lost just once since the start of May. In his most recent outing, he tossed six shutout innings at Pittsburgh.

The Reds have lost four straight series against the Cardinals dating back to last July.