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The St. Louis Cardinals can no longer win the NL Central.

Securing the wild card is also starting to look unlikely.

With Matt Holliday expected to return to the lineup for the

first time in nearly two weeks, the Cardinals will try to avoid a

third straight loss Saturday when they continue their series with

the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals (86-71) dropped the series opener 5-1 to Chicago

(70-87) on Friday, eliminating them from the Central race after

Milwaukee defeated Florida to clinch its first division title in 29

years.

St. Louis has dropped two straight following a 12-2 run to fall

three games behind wild card leader Atlanta with five to play.

“We started this run weeks ago, everybody counted us out a long

time ago and we battled back to give ourselves a chance,” starting

pitcher Chris Carpenter said. “… We’re going to be here ready to

go. Everybody is excited.”

The Cardinals have to be excited about the return of Holliday,

who has missed nine games with a tendon injury on the middle finger

of his right hand. He took batting practice Friday and was on deck

in the eighth inning of the series opener before St. Louis grounded

into its third double play to end the inning.

“Anything but a double play, that would have been fun to see,”

manager Tony La Russa said.

Watching Holliday face Saturday’s scheduled Cubs starter Rodrigo

Lopez (6-6, 4.71 ERA) could also be fun for the Cardinals. The left

fielder is 7 for 15 with four doubles and a homer off the

right-hander.

Lopez, though, has won his last two starts after striking out a

season-high seven over six strong innings of Saturday’s 2-1 victory

over Houston. He’s looking to use his final start of the season as

an audition for 2012.

“I’m trying to do a job this year and trying to find a spot

somewhere,” said Lopez, who last won three consecutive starts May

25-June 4, 2006, while with Baltimore.

Lopez is 0-3 with a 10.13 ERA and a .404 opponent batting

average in two starts and two relief appearances versus St. Louis

this season. Coming out of the bullpen June 5, allowed walkoff home

run to Albert Pujols in the Cardinals’ 3-2, 10-inning home win.

Pujols, tied for the NL lead with 37 homers, is 6 for 18 with

three homers off Lopez.

More production from the Cardinals first baseman, who has

reached safely in 39 straight games, could benefit Saturday’s

starter Kyle Lohse (14-8, 3.47).

Lohse has yielded two earned runs or fewer in seven of his last

10 starts after tossing 7 1-3 innings of one-run ball in Monday’s

4-3 victory at Philadelphia.

“You just can’t give him enough credit,” La Russa said of Lohse,

1-0 with a 3.38 ERA in two starts against the Cubs this season. “We

had our best defensive team out there and we kicked it around (with

two errors). He picked everybody up all day.”

Shortstop Rafael Furcal made a critical error in an 8-6 loss to

the New York Mets on Thursday when St. Louis gave up a four-run

ninth-inning lead, but could be in Saturday’s lineup after La Russa

gave Nick Punto the nod Friday.

Furcal is 10 for 26 with two doubles and two homers off

Lopez.

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, 21, who on Friday became the

youngest player in franchise history to reach 200 hits, is 1 for 8

off Lohse.

Alfonso Soriano, who hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning

of the series opener, is batting .390 with three home runs in 41

at-bats against the Cardinals right-hander.