Preview: Cards look to take advantage of a depleted Braves lineup

A sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals last month was the launching point for the Atlanta Braves’ lengthy winning streak.

Now, the Cardinals will look to take advantage of a depleted Braves lineup in the opener of a four-game set Thursday night in St. Louis.

The Braves (77-49) started their 14-game run – the majors’ longest in 11 seasons – by taking three in a row at home over St. Louis from July 26-28, limiting the Cardinals to three runs and 14 hits. They’ve cooled off somewhat, winning six of their last 10, but will be without Jason Heyward and possibly Justin Upton on Thursday.

Heyward is expected to miss four to six weeks with a broken jaw after being hit by a pitch in a 4-1, 10-inning road victory over the Mets on Wednesday. He recorded a 1.005 OPS with 15 RBIs in 23 games since being moving to the leadoff spot July 27, and the Braves are 19-4 during that stretch.

Upton missed his second straight game since straining his upper back while taking swings prior to Tuesday’s 5-3 loss, though he said he thinks he will be ready to face St. Louis (73-53). Upton is batting .377 with seven home runs and 15 RBIs in his last 17 games.

Atlanta remains the lone team to knock off the Cardinals with Thursday’s scheduled starter Joe Kelly (4-3, 3.01 ERA) on the mound since St. Louis added him to the rotation over a month ago.

Kelly is 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA in seven starts since July 6. He threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings while allowing seven hits in a 2-0 loss at Atlanta on July 27.

The right-hander matched a season high with six strikeouts his last time out, yielding four hits over six innings of a 4-0 road win over the Cubs on Saturday.

“He’s stepped up and really taken advantage of it,” manager Mike Matheny said. “You can tell he can’t wait to get the ball.”

Atlanta will activate left-hander Paul Maholm (9-9, 4.41) from the disabled list for his first start since July 20 due to a bruised wrist. Maholm has been much worse on the road, going 4-7 with a 6.03 ERA in 13 outings compared to a 1.93 ERA in seven starts at Turner Field.

St. Louis might not be the ideal opponent for him to return against, as he’s 0-3 with a 6.18 ERA in his last five matchups.

The series will feature the top two contenders for the NL batting title in Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and Braves third baseman Chris Johnson, who are both hitting .332. Molina is 10 for 27 in six games since returning from a sprained knee, though he was 0 for 4 in an 8-6 win in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Johnson, who was 7 for 10 in these teams’ first series, hit a three-run homer in the top of the 10th on Wednesday.

Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig homered in a six-run second inning for the Cardinals on Wednesday. Beltran, Craig, Matt Holliday, David Freese and Matt Carpenter combined to go 5 for 50 against Atlanta last month.

Beltran is 9 for 24 with two homers and two doubles off Maholm, while Craig is 6 for 14 with three doubles.

The Cardinals have lost eight of nine regular-season meetings with the Braves.