The St. Louis Cardinals used the April version of the Cincinnati Reds to get off to a good start and briefly lead the National League Central.
On Friday night, St. Louis will open its last series before the All-Star break when Cincinnati arrives at Busch Stadium. But it might not recognize this iteration of the Reds.
Instead of the team that they've beaten nine times out of 10 this year, the Cardinals will see a team that has played the best baseball of any NL Central team in the last month. Even factoring in a 19-4 losst Wednesday night at Cleveland, Cincinnati (41-52) has won 19 of its last 28 games and is making a serious run to escape the division cellar.
"With each and every win, with each and every comeback win, with a performance of the night from somebody different, I think our team gets more confident, and I think we get more excited about the present and the future," Reds first baseman Joey Votto told mlb.com.
Votto (.292-9-48), second baseman Scooter Gennett (.326-15-59) and third baseman Eugenio Suarez (.312-19-69) are all headed for the All-Star Game. Suarez leads the league in RBIs and Gennett has proved his 2017 season wasn't an outlier.
But the big reason Cincinnati has improved so drastically is it's getting better starting pitching. Former New York Mets right-hander Matt Harvey (4-5, 4.80), who will open the series against St. Louis, has helped the rotation make a transformation from awful to decent.
Harvey has won three of his last four starts, and is pitching to an ERA of 3.79 since joining the Reds. What''s more, his fastball velocity has risen into the mid-90s again, or closer to where he was in 2013 and 2015 when he averaged just over a strikeout an inning in New York.
This will be Harvey's second start of the year against the Cardinals. He was no-decisioned in a 7-6 loss on June 8 after yielding five runs, four hits and three walks in six innings, fanning five. He's 0-2 in five prior outings, four of them starts, against St. Louis with a 3.21 ERA.
Carlos Martinez (6-4, 3.05), who has snapped back into form after a mostly rocky June, will take the mound for the Cardinals. Martinez has won three straight starts, including a 3-2 decision Saturday in San Francisco in which he cruised through seven innings, scattering six hits and allowing a run with no walks and three strikeouts.
It will be Martinez's fourth start against Cincinnati in 2018. He's 1-1 with a no-decision, falling 6-3 to the Reds on June 10, when he walked seven batters in 3 2/3 innings. Martinez blanked Cincinnati in 13 innings in two April outings, and is 7-4 with a 3.60 ERA in 22 career games, 11 of them starts.
St. Louis (47-44) is coming off a 5-4 road trip that ended with a thud, a 4-0 loss Wednesday night at the Chicago White Sox. It's in third place in the division, seven games behind first-place Milwaukee.