Leake will try to give struggling rotation a boost as Cards visit Nationals

Mike Leake has shown sigificant improvement in his last three starts.

Chris Carlson/AP

Mike Leake was again not at his sharpest against the Washington Nationals last month but was optimistic that improved performances were just around the corner.

That has proved true for the St. Louis Cardinals right-hander in his last few starts, and he’ll try to give his struggling staff another boost Thursday night in the opener of a four-game series in Washington.

Leake gave up five runs, four in the fourth inning, and went seven in a 5-4 loss to the Nationals on April 29.

"I just let it get away for one inning. Results might not show up, but mentally and through my process, I think I’m getting better," he said after dropping to 0-3 with a 6.47 ERA in his past six matchups.

Leake’s ERA would rise to 6.03 after his sixth start for the Cardinals on May 4, but he’s since won all three behind a 0.86 ERA.

Leake (3-3, 4.07 ERA) tossed seven scoreless innings in a 6-2 victory over Arizona on Saturday. That was easily St. Louis’ best start in the last seven games.

The rotation has an 8.64 ERA in that span with the staff owning an overall mark of 7.29. St. Louis (24-23) gave up a combined 21 runs while losing its final two games against the visiting Chicago Cubs, and Carlos Martinez allowed six in the second inning in a 9-8 defeat Wednesday.

The Nationals (28-19) outscored the Cardinals 17-6 in a three-game sweep in St. Louis that they finished off May 1.

Washington’s run production lately, however, has proved inconsistent.

The Nationals have plated two runs or fewer in three of their last five games, all losses, and scored a combined 15 in the two wins. They followed a 7-4 victory Tuesday against the New York Mets with a 2-0 defeat Wednesday.

Bryce Harper was held out of the starting lineup by manager Dusty Baker after hitting .176 in his past 24 games. That average dropped to .174 with a fruitless pinch-hit appearance Wednesday.

Harper’s slump began with an 0-for-11 series against the Cardinals that included five strikeouts and he went 0 for 3 against Leake, putting him 2 for 10 lifetime. The slugger hit .314 with nine of his 11 homers and 24 of his 31 RBIs in his first 21 games.

"This is probably the worst period Bryce has gone through," Baker said. "Every time you go through a bad period or a bad stretch, it’s the worst time in your life, until the next time."

St. Louis is without leadoff hitter and third baseman Matt Carpenter, who was awaiting the birth of his first child. Kolten Wong manned his spot in the lineup Wednesday and Ruben Tejada played third.

Wong is a career .378 hitter in 13 games against the Nationals, and Matt Adams is batting .392 with six homers and 14 RBIs in 15 matchups.

Joe Ross (3-4, 2.70) will try to contain those two hitters and the rest of the Cardinals lineup as he enters on a four-start losing streak. The right-hander has gotten a combined five runs of support in those outings and yielded three runs in 5 2/3 innings of a 3-2 defeat in Miami on Saturday.

Ross allowed one run in six innings in a 6-1 victory in St. Louis on April 30, part of a 3-0 record and 0.79 ERA in his first four starts.