CINCINNATI -- As they reach the Memorial Day milepost in what has the makings of a two-team race, it's fitting that the unofficial start to summer begins like this: The first-place Reds and second-place Cardinals are meeting for another three-game series that opens Monday at Busch Stadium. Only one game separates the two teams in the National League Central standings.
"We're going to St. Louis with the lead," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Our goal is to pad the lead when we leave St. Louis." Amazingly, the two teams have already played nine games against each other with the Cardinals having the edge, five games to four. St. Louis took two of three in the first two series and the Reds took two of three from the Cardinals in the last meeting at Great American Ball Park on May 14-16. It was during that series when Cincinnati displaced St. Louis from its longtime perch at the top of the division. Now that the roles are reversed -- with the Reds being the hunted -- the teams don't view different meanings to the upcoming games. "If it was the end of the season, we would look at it a different way," Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols said. "But it's a long season. We're not going to put pressure on ourselves, and I'm pretty sure the Reds aren't going to put any pressure on themselves. They're playing well. We just got done playing great this weekend here against our rivals [the Cubs], and we need to continue to do that." "We're trying to win as many ballgames as we can, whether we're in first or not," Reds left fielder Jonny Gomes said. "We all know we're toting around that bulls eye on our back now with a first-place jersey. We have to come and play every day." Cincinnati didn't make its time at the top of the division a passing fad, having won four of its past five games and 11 of 16 to improve to 30-21. Since the Cardinals left town, the Reds have spent 12 of the past 15 days alone in first place or tied for first with St. Louis. The Reds have been fortunate to have their offense and pitching in perfect synergy. They moved to the top of the NL in offensive categories like team average (.276), runs scored (264) and home runs (67). The rotation is 10-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 16 games since May 14. "They've got great pitching, man. And they've got great offense," Pujols said. The Cardinals have been nipped by recent injuries, including to starters Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse, but the Reds might have just missed catching them when they're down -- especially Pujols. Until Sunday, when he slugged three homers against the Cubs, Pujols had only two homers in the month of May and a .392 slugging percentage. He endured an 11-game stretch without an RBI. St. Louis' offense was also often anemic until taking two of three at Wrigley Field. On Monday, the series will open with Jamie Garcia starting for the Cardinals against Reds veteran Bronson Arroyo. Garcia is 4-2 with a stifling 1.14 ERA in nine starts but this will mark the first time the rookie left-hander faces a club for the second time. During the previous meeting, on May 14 at Great American Ball Park, Garcia was a 4-3 winner after he pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed two runs and five hits. Meanwhile, Arroyo is 5-0 with a 2.66 ERA over his past six starts, including a 2.08 ERA over his past four starts. On Tuesday, the Reds have another starter on a roll in Johnny Cueto. Opposing Cueto will be P.J. Walters, who earned his first big league win with a five scoreless inning performance at San Diego. Cueto has been bothered by a blister on his index finger his past two starts, but is also 5-0 with a 1.85 ERA over his past six starts. On Wednesday, Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter will face Sam LeCure, who is also coming off of his first big league win. Carpenter is 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two previous starts against the Reds this season, and has owned Cincinnati most of his career. "We've got the same team they played last time, except we've got some guys playing better ball now," Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said. "We are the St. Louis Cardinals, and it's May 30. I think the guys in this clubhouse have been in the postseason a few times, a lot of them. They've been playing the game long enough to know that on May 30, you can't clinch the division. If we continue to play good ball, we'll be good." History hasn't been kind to the Reds at Busch Stadium, where they've lost 11 of the past 15 games. Whatever happens this week, it could have a lasting impression. After the upcoming series, the Reds and Cardinals don't meet again until the second week of August. Who knows what the future holds, but the Reds have clearly shown the Cardinals they aren't going away. "I know we're going to St. Louis in first place and playing the team right behind us, but I don't think everybody is thinking about that," Reds closer Francisco Cordero said. "Everybody is focused on playing and winning games, and keep doing what we're doing. We're playing everybody good. We'll go to St. Louis and try to [be as] good or even better than we were at home."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Matthew Leach contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.