A disappointing stretch has knocked the St. Louis Cardinals out of first place in the NL Central, but they appear to have a good chance at turning things around with a homestand against two of the NL's worst teams.
They also seem to have the right man on the mound to open that homestand.
Chris Carpenter looks to win his 11th straight decision over the Pittsburgh Pirates when he takes the ball for the Cardinals on Friday night.
St. Louis (56-46) owned a 1 1/2-game division lead July 21, but has since lost five of seven to drop one-half game behind first-place Cincinnati. The Cardinals have been shut out three times during their slump, including a 4-0 loss to the Mets on Thursday in which they managed four hits against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
The heart of the St. Louis lineup - sluggers Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday - has contributed to the slump. The three-time NL MVP is batting .133 in the last seven games, while Holliday is batting .219.
Pujols figures to fare better in home series against last-place Pittsburgh and fifth-place Houston. He hit .550 with two homers and in six home games versus the Pirates last season, and is batting .393 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs in 30 games against them since the new Busch Stadium opened.
Carpenter (11-3, 3.09 ERA) has enjoyed similar success, posting a 1.23 ERA while winning all three of his starts against the Pirates at the new Busch. However, it hasn't really mattered where the right-hander has faced them.
Carpenter is 11-1 with a 2.29 lifetime ERA versus Pittsburgh, his most victories over any opponent. Since suffering his lone loss to the Pirates on June 29, 2004, Carpenter is 10-0 with a 2.01 ERA in 12 starts - all Cardinals victories.
The three-time All-Star allowed two runs while striking out eight in seven innings against Pittsburgh on May 7, though he didn't get a decision in the Cardinals' 4-3 win.
Against the Cubs on Sunday, Carpenter gave up three runs and nine hits in seven innings of a 4-3, 11-inning victory.
The Pirates (36-65) had a chance to notch their first road sweep of the season Thursday, but lost 9-3 to Colorado.
Andrew McCutchen sat out due to a sore right shoulder after going 4 for 8 with two doubles and two runs in the first two games at Coors Field. The center fielder, listed as day to day, was 6 for 10 with four doubles against the Cardinals in May.
Probable Pittsburgh starter Jeff Karstens (2-6, 4.72) had his best outing of the season against the Cardinals on May 8, allowing three hits in six innings of a 2-0 win. He hasn't had much luck lately, though.
Karstens has lost his last three outings and has one victory in 10 starts since rejoining Pittsburgh's rotation at the beginning of June following a stint in the bullpen. The right-hander gave up four runs in six innings of a 9-2 home defeat to San Diego on Saturday.
"I feel like I'm so close to getting over that hump," Karstens told the Pirates' official website. "There's a few things that haven't really gone my way, but it's just part of baseball."
This is the first series between these NL Central rivals since the May set, when the Cardinals took two of three in Pittsburgh.