Series preview: Cards face second-place Reds in Cincinnati

ST. LOUIS — Even though the Reds went 19-7 in May, they drew a near-Marlins like crowd of only 18,498 when they returned home Monday night. Maybe Cincinnati fans were holding out for this weekend. The Cardinals are coming to town for the first time this season.

Much larger crowds are expected for the three-game set between the rivals. Not so long ago, you could have inserted the word “bitter” in front of “rivals.” But these days, their rivalry isn’t based on bad blood instigated by Brandon Phillips. These days, their rivalry is based on the standings.

These are the two best teams in the NL Central (sorry, Pirates, I’m not buying) and figure to fight all the way. Thirteen meetings remain between the clubs, with 10 in Cincinnati. While there’s always a chance for trouble — it doesn’t take much to rekindle the acrimony — the teams seemed to have moved past their ugly brawl of August 2010.

“There was some history,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Thursday. “Now it’s just teams that respect the other one is a pretty good club and is going to go out and play hard-nosed baseball.”

Even Phillips is talking nice about the Redbirds these days, calling them baseball’s best team and “the type of teams we have to step our game up.”

Phillips has not played since being hit in the forearm last Saturday, but you can be sure he will be back for this one. He has been the Reds’ best player against St. Louis since 2010, hitting .290 with nine homers and 33 runs in 52 games.  

He was swinging a hot bat before he was hurt, too. Coincidentally or not, some of the Reds have struggled in his absence — none more than their All-Star first baseman. Joey Votto, who hits in front of Phillips, is 3 for his last 27 with only three walks, one RBI and no extra-base hits in that stretch. The odds of breaking out appear against him Friday night against Adam Wainwright. Votto is 2 for 20 in his career against the Cardinals’ ace.

The Reds lost their ace, Johnny Cueto, to a shoulder strain this week, but he was not scheduled to pitch this weekend. They will start a trio that has been pitching well this season.

Friday night starter Mike Leake, who appeared in danger of losing his spot in the rotation a month ago, has given up only one earned run in his past four starts. The 25-year-old right-hander has picked up the zip on his fastball and is relying more on his changeup this season.

Mat Latos (5-0, 2.90 ERA), who has allowed only one run in 12 innings against the Cardinals this season, will oppose rookie Tyler Lyons on Saturday night.

Bronson Arroyo, in the final year of his contract and likely nearing the end of an eight-year stay in Cincinnati, will oppose Lance Lynn when the teams meet in Sunday night’s nationally televised game. Arroyo already has lost twice to St. Louis this season, while two of Lynn’s eight wins have come against the Reds.

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