Hot Cardinals face Braves with eye on NL Central lead

ST. LOUIS — For most of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals have been correctly panned for inconsistent play.

But when they left Busch Stadium on Saturday night after a 6-5 win over the Atlanta Braves, they owned a season-high eight-game winning streak.

And when they leave the ballpark after Sunday’s series finale with Atlanta, it could be as the first-place team in the very winnable National League Central.

St. Louis (61-56) crawled into a virtual first-place tie with the Chicago Cubs, thanks to their 6-2 loss at Arizona. While Chicago still officially leads by .001 percentage point, the Cardinals clearly have momentum on their side.

Led by an offense that has scored 68 runs in its win streak, St. Louis has looked a lot more lively and viable than anyone else in the division.

“I think all the hard work is paying off,” said pitcher Carlos Martinez, who won his ninth game of the year Saturday night. “I have all the confidence in the world in our team. I think the change everyone has seen is the team is more unified.

“Everyone’s healthy, and everyone’s supporting each other. I think that’s the way we’re going to keep it through the end of the season, and hopefully into the postseason.”

How sizzling has the Cardinals’ offense been? Saturday night’s game was their first in a week where they didn’t score at least eight runs. They have had at least one inning with three runs or more in the last seven games.

Six different players drove in runs Saturday night. There was timely situational hitting, a couple of solo homers and a spate of long, grinding at-bats that have come to characterize this team’s best stretch of play in two years.

Good starting pitching has been a feature of the streak as well. Michael Wacha (9-4, 3.70 ERA) will try to keep that trend going in the homestand finale.

Wacha’s 10-3 win at Kansas City on Tuesday night was his sixth in his last seven decisions dating to June 26. He gave up six hits and three runs in six innings, walking two and fanning five in a 96-pitch outing.

He has pitched four times in his career against the Braves, going 0-1 with a 3.07 ERA. Wacha left a May 7 game in Atlanta with a 4-2 lead after six innings but settled for a no-decision when the bullpen coughed up the advantage in a 6-4, 14-inning St. Louis win.

His opposite number three-plus months ago, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (7-7, 4.03), will take the mound for the Braves. Dickey hasn’t worked since Aug. 4, when he bagged a 5-3 win over Miami, allowing three hits and three runs in six innings with a walk and three strikeouts.

Dickey gave up four runs in six innings in his start against the Cardinals in May, including a homer to Tommy Pham.

He has faced the Cardinals eight times in his career, with six starts, posting a 3-1 record and 4.38 ERA.

Atlanta (51-63) is looking to snap a five-game losing streak that has seen it drop two one-run games, including Saturday night’s.

“These guys give you a hard 27 outs,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said of his team. “They never quit coming at you.”