One swing from Allen Craig is greatly responsible for the St. Louis Cardinals being back alone atop the NL Central.
Facing Mat Latos could knock them off their perch.
Craig and the surging Cardinals will try to begin building a cushion in the division race Tuesday night when they try to solve Latos and beat the Cincinnati Reds again.
St. Louis (77-54) leads the Central by one-half game over Pittsburgh and is 3 1/2 ahead of third-place Cincinnati (74-58).
Craig helped push the Cardinals back into sole possession of first place for the first time since July 29. His third hit of the game Monday was his first career grand slam with two outs in the seventh, completing a rally that gave St. Louis an 8-6 win in the opener of this three-game series.
“No bigger or better at-bat all season,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s been so good in that situation.”
Craig is 7 for 10 with 20 RBIs with the bases loaded this season. He leads the majors with a .452 average with runners in scoring position, a major reason why he’s amassed a career-high 95 RBIs to lead the team.
The All-Star first baseman is 10 for 20 with seven RBIs in his past six games for St. Louis, which has won eight of 10.
A meeting with Latos (13-4, 2.93 ERA), however, could pose a problem for the Cardinals.
The right-hander is 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA over his last four starts against them, three of which came this season. He last faced them June 8 and got the win, yielding two runs in seven innings of a 4-2 home victory and limiting Craig to an infield single in three at-bats.
Latos is looking to match his career high of 14 wins and is on a dazzling run, surrendering three runs in 30 1-3 innings this month. He’s 5-1 with a 1.47 ERA over his last seven starts.
He overcame an illness to beat Arizona on Thursday, getting sick before the game and twice more over eight innings while yielding one run in a 2-1 victory.
“Latos gave us what we wanted,” manager Dusty Baker said. “A security guard told me he was vomiting underneath the stands.”
St. Louis counters by giving Joe Kelly (5-3, 3.01) his first start versus the Reds. He’s 1-0 in two relief appearances against them, allowing one run in five innings.
The right-hander is 5-0 with a 2.33 ERA in eight starts since joining the rotation July 6.
“He’s like having a Ferrari in your garage,” second baseman Matt Carpenter said. “He’s settling in as a starter and he’s running with it. I love it when he goes out there and competes. He’s aggressive and he’s pitching with confidence.”
That was certainly on display Thursday, when Kelly beat the Braves as he battled through a career-high 109 pitches while allowing two runs in six innings of a 6-2 win.
He’ll have to contend with Zack Cozart, who is 8 for 21 in his last six games and has eight RBIs over the past four.
While Cozart doubled and tripled while driving in three runs Monday, Jay Bruce homered and singled to make him 10 for 29 (.345) in seven games at St. Louis this year.