Cards-Reds series is a matchup of two cooled-off contenders

ST. LOUIS — Now that we know the Pirates aren’t going to fold for the Cardinals, it’s time to find out about the Reds.

This much we know: The Reds have been playing more like the Cardinals than the Pirates lately. The Reds ended a five-game losing streak Wednesday at San Diego before heading to Cincinnati for an off day. Like the Cardinals, the Reds’ main problem was offense.

After averaging 6 runs while winning six of their first eight games after the break, the Reds were held to five runs over their five-game skid.

Cincinnati’s pitching, however, has remained strong. The Reds’ 2.40 ERA since the break is the best in the NL and, yes, that includes the Pirates (3.26). Even though the Cardinals will miss Mat Latos and Homer Bailey this weekend, they will face formidable foes in Bronson Arroyo, Tony Cigrani and Mike Leake.

You know plenty about Arroyo. Since being traded to the Reds before the 2006 season, Arroyo has made 31 starts against St. Louis. No other pitcher has started more than 19 times against the Cardinals in that eight-year span. Friday night will mark Arroyo’s fourth start against St. Louis this season. He is 0-2 so far but has not pitched badly, giving up eight runs in 19 innings.

Cigrani might pose an even bigger challenge. He’s the prototypical pitcher that gives St. Louis trouble. That is, he’s a left-hander without much history against the Cardinals. In fact, he has faced only one current Cardinal. Matt Carpenter had a hit off him in the ninth inning of the 2012 regular-season finale.

With a 4.76 ERA and 2-3 record in six starts, Leake hasn’t had much success in his career against the Cardinals. But after gaining velocity on his fastball, Leake is enjoying his best season in the majors with a 2.59 ERA and 10-4 record.

The Reds will get Shelby Miller, Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn.

The key for the Cardinals will be its offense, of course. They broke out of a funk Thursday night by scoring more runs in a 13-0 victory than they had totaled (10) in their seven-game losing streak. Seven players, including starter Joe Kelly, had at least two hits and the Cardinals returned to their clutch-hitting ways by going 8 for 20 with runners in scoring position. For a team that has only one homer since the break and doesn’t possess much speed, timely hitting is crucial to its offensive success.

While the Cardinals and Reds will be banging heads at Great American Ball Park, the first-place Pirates will be at home enjoying a soft stretch of their schedule. This weekend they face the Rockies, who were outscored 31-5 while being swept at Atlanta. Then they get Miami, the team with the worst record in the NL, though the Marlins took two of three against Pittsburgh in Miami last weekend.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.