When worlds collide: Cards, Nats bats are both awakening

While the St. Louis Cardinals' bats are heating up just in time for the home stretch, the Washington Nationals hope their lineup didn't wake up too late.

The two surging offenses open a three-game set in St. Louis on Monday night with the Cardinals clinging to the NL Central lead and the Nationals looking to climb in the East.

St. Louis (84-46) has won seven of eight but has added only one game to its division lead over Pittsburgh, which trails by 4 1/2. The Pirates and Cardinals have six games remaining this year, including three at Busch Stadium this weekend.

The Cardinals will first try to add to a sparkling record against Washington over the last three years. St. Louis took two of three against the Nationals (66-63) in April and has won 13 of 16 in the series since the beginning of 2013.

St. Louis will hand the ball to John Lackey (11-8, 2.92 ERA), who got some help from the offense in the club's 7-5 victory April 22. In his third career start against the Nationals and first since 2008, Lackey didn't factor into the decision after allowing eight hits and five runs in just 5 2/3 innings. He exited with the game tied at 5.

The right-hander held Arizona to one run in seven innings of Wednesday's 3-1 win, the 11th time in his last 14 starts he's given up two runs or fewer. Lackey -- 1-0 with a 4.58 ERA in his career against Washington -- has a 2.30 ERA since June 15.

Not that he's needed the support, but the offense likely will be at Lackey's back after posting back-to-back 13-hit games in San Francisco.

During Sunday's 7-5 victory, Matt Carpenter, Brandon Moss and Mark Reynolds homered, and Jason Heyward finished a home run shy of the cycle. Heyward went 5 for 10 against the Giants and is hitting .375 since Aug. 22.

The Cardinals totaled 33 hits and 17 runs in taking two of three in the series.

"It's coming together right now," Heyward said. "Hitting-wise, we've kept our heads up and kept plugging away."

Now they'll face a pitcher they've struggled against in Gio Gonzalez. In four career starts in the series -- one in each of the last four years -- Gonzalez (9-7, 4.11) is 2-1 with a 0.93 ERA. Over 29 combined innings, he has allowed just 23 hits and three runs while walking eight and striking out 25.

Following a streak of eight starts without allowing more than two earned runs, however, Gonzalez's ERA has blown up this month with three straight outings of five innings or less and at least four earned runs allowed.

Gonzalez has lost each of his last three starts and his ERA has risen 61 points during the stretch. In losses to San Francisco, Milwaukee and San Diego, the left-hander coughed up 16 runs -- 14 earned -- and 20 hits over 12 1/3 innings.

Gonzalez has failed to pitch more than five innings in six of his last seven starts.

Washington is trying to chip away at the New York Mets' 5 1/2-game division lead. The Nationals had 30 hits and 15 runs in taking two of three from Miami over the weekend. They had 13 hits in Sunday's 7-4 win, including homers by Jayson Werth and Clint Robinson.

"We dug ourselves a pretty good hole here, so we're going to need to get hot and stay hot the rest of the way," said Werth.

St. Louis right-hander Lance Lynn said he expects to make his next start after injuring his right ankle in Saturday's 6-0 win.