Reds begin series with division-leading Cards

Dylan Axelrod goes to the mound tonight for the Reds.

David Kohl/AP

The surging St. Louis Cardinals increased their NL Central lead after pounding one of their closest competitors over the weekend.

A visit to Cincinnati isn’t likely to slow them down.

St. Louis looks to continue its march toward the postseason in Monday night’s series opener against the woeful Reds.

The Cardinals (79-64) are 4 1/2 games ahead of Pittsburgh and five in front of the Brewers after taking three of four at Milwaukee. Jhonny Peralta went 3 for 5 with a two-run homer and Adam Wainwright went the distance for his 17th win in Sunday’s 9-1 victory, St. Louis’ eighth in nine games.

"Now’s the time we’ve got to keep the throttle down," manager Mike Matheny said. "This game can reach up and grab you."

Getting stronger as the season progresses is nothing new for the Cardinals, who are a major league-best 58-29 in September since 2011.

"I think it goes back to experience and having some guys who have been there before," Matheny told MLB’s official website. "I think it all comes back to leadership, and I’m talking about our veteran players who have been very consistent in how they prepare and go about the games. Then it’s an easy model for the younger player to follow."

St. Louis is 9-3 against Cincinnati after taking five straight in the series. While the Cardinals have opened this month with a bang, the Reds have dropped five of six by a 39-21 margin.

Cincinnati’s woes continued in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the New York Mets. Jay Bruce hit his 16th homer, but a rare error by center fielder Billy Hamilton led to three unearned runs for the Mets in the sixth.

"It’s tough, because your pitcher falls behind, that’s an inning he should have been out of," said Hamilton, whose team has committed the fewest errors in the majors with 64. "I put it on myself for not making that play, and I’ve got to put it behind me."

The Reds, 11 for their last 56 with runners in scoring position, have gone a league-worst 16-32 since the All-Star break.

"It would be nice to get out from underneath (the label of the team with the worst second-half record) and be a team that plays a role in some of these deciding games for the postseason," manager Bryan Price said.

Cincinnati will try to break out against Shelby Miller (8-9, 4.00 ERA), who is seeking just his second win over the last three months. The right-hander pitched well but went without a decision in Wednesday’s 1-0 walkoff victory over Pittsburgh, yielding three hits and three walks over seven innings.

While he owns a 3.67 ERA at home, Miller is 1-2 with a 6.23 mark over his last six road outings. He’s compiled a 5.73 ERA in losing both his starts against the Reds this year.

Dylan Axelrod (1-1, 3.18) is set to make his fourth start for Cincinnati since getting called up last month. The right-hander surrendered four runs — all on the career worst-tying three homers he allowed — over six innings in Wednesday’s 6-0 loss at Baltimore.

Axelrod has never faced the Cardinals.

Hamilton is 2 for his last 16 and batting .191 with 13 strikeouts against St. Louis this year. He’s hitting .225 at home compared to .298 on the road.

Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday was held out Sunday with tightness in his lower back, leaving his status unclear. Holliday, a career .325 hitter against Cincinnati, is 8 for his last 19 in the series with five RBIs.