Edwin Encarnacion has raised his game at the right time for the Cincinnati Reds. The St. Louis Cardinals are still waiting for one of their players to do the same.
A showdown of the top two teams in the NL Central starts Tuesday when the Reds open a three-game series at Busch Stadium against the front-running yet slumping Cardinals.
Encarnacion was named NL player of the week after going 11-for-25 (.440) with four homers and eight RBIs, raising his batting average 21 points to .302. More importantly, he helped the Reds (61-57) make up three games in the NL Central standings, drawing them within 1 1/2 games of the Cardinals.
The third baseman carries a career-high 10-game hitting streak into this contest and went 5-for-12 with three homers and six RBIs as the Reds took two of three games from the Phillies, including a 7-5, 11-inning victory Sunday. Encarnacion, Adam Dunn and Rich Aurilia hit back-to-back-to-back homers in the sixth inning.
''It was very important to win this series,'' Aurilia said. ''We're going to enjoy the off-day and get back to work. That will be another big series for us. In August, every series becomes important.''
Encarnacion is 1-for-7 with a solo home run lifetime against Cardinals scheduled starter Chris Carpenter.
The Reds lead the NL wild-card race by one game over the San Diego Padres, are 8-4 against the Cardinals heading into their final series of the year versus St. Louis.
Aaron Harang (12-7, 3.66 ERA) has two of those eight victories. The right-hander - whose 2006 wins over the Cardinals both came at Busch Stadium - struggled against them last Wednesday, when he was reached for six runs in six innings.
David Ross, though, bailed out Harang with a two-run ninth-inning homer to give the Reds an 8-7 victory. Harang is 3-5 with a 4.42 ERA in 10 lifetime starts versus St. Louis.
St. Louis (62-55) may have hit its low point of the season after being swept in a three-game series at Pittsburgh. The Cardinals were routed 7-0 on Sunday for their 13th loss in 17 games and scored just three runs in the series, stranding 24 runners and leaving the team without momentum heading into this crucial set of games.
''Nothing. What positives can you take out of a sweep? Nothing,'' groused Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. ''We couldn't get the hits with runners in scoring position all weekend. But that's part of the game.''
Had it not been for Pujols, the Cardinals might not have scored all weekend. He scored the team's lone run Friday while going 4-for-4 and hit a two-run homer in Saturday's 3-2 defeat.
Pujols is hitting .421 (16-for-38) with two homers, six RBIs and 13 runs scored in his last 10 games. He is also batting .321 (10-for-31) with four homers, nine RBIs and 12 runs scored in eight games against the Reds this season.
Like Harang, Carpenter (10-6, 3.27) is coming off a forgettable Thursday outing, giving up six runs and six hits - three homers - in seven innings. Carpenter, who is 0-2 with a 4.50 ERA in three starts against the Reds this season, lost to Harang on April 14.
Carpenter is 2-3 with a 2.86 ERA in eight lifetime starts against the Reds.
Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein is 9-for-21 (.429) lifetime against Harang, while Pujols is 9-for-24 (.375) with a homer and four RBIs.