Mets-Cardinals Preview

The St. Louis Cardinals received some solid pitching early to help them climb atop the NL Central, but lately their offense is really starting to click.

The New York Mets can hardly say the same about their lineup.

The Cardinals will look for their first three-game sweep of the scuffling Mets in nearly five years Thursday afternoon at Busch Stadium as New York tries to avoid a fourth straight loss.

St. Louis' pitching staff has a solid 3.83 ERA, but that number was a shaky 5.69 over the six contests heading into Wednesday's game against the Mets (6-8).

Joel Pineiro pitched eight solid innings to give the Cardinals' overworked bullpen a needed rest, but the offense again did more than its part to help St. Louis (10-5) win. Albert Pujols had two RBIs to increase his league-leading total to 18 as the Cardinals scored at least five runs for the seventh straight game and won 5-2.

Manager Tony La Russa, however, isn't getting too excited despite having the NL's second-highest scoring offense.

"If it's September and we're getting 5-6 runs a game, then it would be a good time to talk about it," he said. "But we're taking hungry at-bats."

The Mets, meanwhile, are simply starving for some runs. They're hitting .283, but have just 36 extra-base hits through 14 games, including nine home runs. They've scored eight runs in their last three losses combined.

If the Mets are to avoid being swept by St. Louis for the first time since Aug 6-8, 2004, they'll need to solve Kyle Lohse (2-0, 2.57 ERA), who's part of a Cardinals rotation that's started the season 9-1.

Lohse started twice against New York last season, with extremely different results. He allowed one run and five hits over seven innings of a 7-1 win June 30 at Busch, but was throttled for seven runs and 11 hits -- including three homers -- over five innings in a 9-1 loss at Shea Stadium on July 27.

Lohse was outstanding in his first two starts this season, bringing a 1.13 ERA into Wrigley Field on Saturday. He couldn't hold an early 3-0 lead, however, giving up four runs over five innings while not figuring in the decision in St. Louis' 7-5, 11-inning loss.

"I'm handed a three-run lead there, and it's my job to make it stand up," Lohse told the Cardinals' official Web site. "I take accountability for that one."

The Mets' offense may be struggling to score, but their biggest hitters have feasted on Lohse. David Wright and Carlos Delgado are a combined 13-for-31 (.419) with two homers, and Carlos Beltran has especially hammered the right-hander, hitting .529 (18-for-34) with four homers and 12 RBIs.

Livan Hernandez (1-0, 4.63) will start the series finale for the Mets. The veteran right-hander picked up a win in his first start this year, but didn't get a decision Friday against Milwaukee, giving up four runs in five innings as the Mets won 5-4.

"As a guy who's been at the back end of the rotation for us," manager Jerry Manuel told the Mets' official Web site, "he's given us a chance to win each of his games."

Hernandez has been able to corral Pujols for the most part. The reigning NL MVP is hitting .276 (8-for-29) with one homer in their matchups.