July 20: Dodgers (54-45) @ Cardinals (54-44)

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

wpid-img_20140720_154609029.jpgNow would be a good time to take a snapshot of the National League standings, which feature the Cardinals (alone) in first place in the Central and show them tied with the Giants for the league’s best winning percentage. To keep both distinctions, the Cardinals will have to complete a sweep over the Dodgers tonight — no easy task given that they’ll be opposed by Clayton Kershaw.

Kershaw had his scoreless innings streak snapped at 41 in his final start of the first half. Tonight, he’s seeking win No. 12, which would also be his ninth straight.

With the lefty Kershaw on the mound, manager Mike Matheny added right-handed hitters Peter Bourjos and Mark Ellis to the lineup. Tough assignment for both to be asked to produce against the best when neither has head much playing time as of late.

Carlos Martinez gets the start for the Cardinals in a setting that will test how he handles his emotions. He’s facing a big-time pitcher on a big-time stage (ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball). Martinez was too antsy his last time out, when he had a chance to pitch the Cardinals into sole possession of first place in the NL Central. The Cardinals need him to better handle the moment tonight.

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July 19: Dodgers (54-44) @ Cardinals (53-44)

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

wpid-img_20140719_111906448.jpgJoe Kelly returns to the mound today for his second start since returning from the disabled list. His first outing had its bumps, as Kelly allowed six runs on seven hits and two walks while lasting only three innings. Kelly has had eight days to rest since that start, and the Cardinals are hopeful that he’ll now be able to push toward 100 pitches.

Kelly will be throwing to new Cardinals catcher George Kottaras, who is making his first start since joining the club a week ago. While the Cards still intend to give Tony Cruz the bulk of the starts in Yadier Molina’s absence, the club does need to keep Kottaras involved and get him familiar with a new pitching staff.

Also making his first start of the second half is Oscar Taveras, who takes Allen Craig’s place in right field. Craig is 1-for-6 against Dodgers starter Zack Greinke.

The Cardinals enter the day still trailing the Brewers by one game in the National League Central. Their 53 wins are only one off the NL high, shared by Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

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Molina out 8-to-12 weeks with thumb injury

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

Yadier Molina will miss the next 8-to-12 weeks after suffering a ligament tear in his right thumb, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak announced on Thursday.

An MRI taken after Molina exited Wednesday’s game in the third inning revealed the seriousness of the injury, which comes just as the Cardinals are making a push toward the top of the National League Central. The timing of it will also keep Molina out of the All-Star Game, which he was slated to start after winning the fan vote.

Molina is scheduled to undergo surgery on Friday.

“It’s unfortunate,” Mozeliak said. “Obviously, when you lose a player of his skill set and leadership, it’s tough. But the game doesn’t stop and we’ll keep going.”

Molina injured his thumb in the second inning of Wednesday’s 5-2 win while grabbing third base as he popped up following a feet-first slide. He remained in the game to catch the next half inning before being replaced by Tony Cruz.

Cruz will become the Cardinals’ primary catcher in Molina’s absence, with Audry Perez ready to back him up. Perez, already on the 40-man roster, was recalled from Triple-A Memphis on Thursday. He hit .288/.288/.383 with 10 doubles, two homers and 21 RBIs in 44 games.

Perez was a September call-up by the Cardinals last season and briefly appeared in two games.

Mozeliak acknowledged that he will scour the market for available catchers, too, to see if an addition makes sense between now and the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

“I think from a standpoint of trying to replace him, that’s not even a logical question,” Mozeliak said. “What you’re doing is we need to find a stopgap. We have a lot of confidence in Cruz, that’s why he is our backup. Now he’s going to get an opportunity to play every day. But in the meantime, we’re also going to look out and see if there is something in that can help balance it out in the short term.”

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July 9: Pirates (47-43) @ Cardinals (49-42)

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

wpid-img_20140709_153657007.jpgWith walk-off wins in the first two games of the series, the Cardinals have pulled to within three games of first-place Milwaukee in the National League Central. It’s the closest the Cardinals have been to the Brewers in May. The club can further shrink (possibly erase?) that division lead in the five days leading up to the All-Star break. Two more games remain against the Pirates before a big weekend series in Milwaukee.

If you want to dream big…. imagine the Cardinals heading into the All-Star break atop the division. It’s still a possibility.

Lance Lynn goes tonight and is looking for his 10th win of the season. If he gets it, he would be the first Cardinals pitcher since Bob Gibson (1968-70) to win 10 games before the All-Star break in three consecutive seasons.

Allen Craig returns to the lineup but drops down to the seventh spot, the lowest he’s batted all season. Oscar Taveras, following his two-hit game on Tuesday, is manager Mike Matheny’s No. 2 hitter du jour.

Matheny doesn’t announce any unavailable relievers pregame, but it seems highly likely that Pat Neshek is hands off tonight after pitching in four of the last five games. How far the Cardinals can push Trevor Rosenthal is also a question, as he needed 27 pitches to cover the ninth on Tuesday.

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July 7: Pirates (47-41) @ Cardinals (47-42)

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

wpid-img_20140707_153316374.jpgOne more week remains before the All-Star break, and the week sets up to be an important one for a Cardinals team that continues to tread water. First up are four games against the Pirates, who arrived in St. Louis as the NL Central’s second place team. The Cardinals have dropped to third for the first time since the second week of the season.

A three-game series on the road against first-place Milwaukee looms this weekend. How the Cardinals fare over these next seven games will determine their division positioning heading into the season’s second half.

Adam Wainwright gets the start today seeking to become the NL’s first 12-game winner and looking to hold his spot as the league’s starting pitching ERA leader (1.89 through 17 starts).

The bullpen gets a boost with today’s addition of Tyler Lyons, who takes Marco Gonzales’ roster spot. Gonzales returns to Triple-A, where he will start. Lyons, who was starting for Memphis, is here in St. Louis to pitch in relief. The Cardinals are then leaning toward bringing Joe Kelly back on Friday to make the start against the Brewers. Kelly has been on the DL since suffering an injury to his left hamstring in Milwaukee on April 16.

In other rotation news, Michael Wacha (right shoulder stress reaction) had his shoulder reevaluated with an MRI, which did show improvement. It was not enough, though, to clear Wacha to throw again. He’ll rest for another two weeks, general manager John Mozeliak said, after which the team will do another scan. The Cardinals still do expect to have Wacha back on the mound this year.

Kevin Siegrist (left forearm/shoulder strain) threw 25 pitches in a bullpen session today and said afterward that he felt great. He plans to throw another bullpen session on Wednesday (that one at 100 percent intensity) and then head out on a Minor League rehab assignment.

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Cardinals recall Lyons; option Gonzales to Triple-A

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

The Cardinals recalled left-hander Tyler Lyons on Monday and created space for him on the 25-man roster by optioning lefty Marco Gonzales to Memphis, where he will pitch in the Triple-A rotation.

Gonzales made three spot starts for the Cardinals, pitching most recently in Sunday’s 8-4 loss. Gonzales allowed seven hits and walked five but limited the Marlins to one run in 4 2/3 innings in that outing. He finished five innings in only one of the three starts.

The fifth spot in the Cardinals’ rotation, which Gonzales has filled since Jaime Garcia was shut down, will come up next on Friday, when the club needs someone to start the team’s series opener against the first-place Brewers. Lyons, who has been pitching in Memphis’ rotation since coming off the disabled list last month, would be an option. The Cardinals could otherwise choose to activate Joe Kelly (left hamstring strain) from the DL and have him start.

Kelly threw 72 pitches in a rehab start for Memphis on Sunday. The Cardinals had previously said they expected to have him make one more rehab start and then return to the Majors after the All-Star break.

Lyons posted a 6.12 ERA in six appearances for the Cardinals earlier this season.

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About Gehrig and ALS and running and giving back

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

First, watch this.

What a tremendous tribute to an all-time great on the 75th anniversary of one of the most famed speeches in this sport’s history. But Major League Baseball has taken this week not only to recognize Lou Gehrig for his on-field achievements, but also to bring attention to the cruel disease that cut his life short.

Now, watch this.

That’s Greg Ratliff, the father of one of my friends and colleagues, Jason, from MLB.com. Theirs is one of many families currently burdened by ALS (now commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease), to which there is no cure or treatment.

The city of Kimmswick, Mo., has rallied around the Ratliffs to try and help them as they deal with  rising insurance costs and medical needs for Nancy. The jewel event in those efforts is the Kimmswick 5K and 1-mile Fun Run, which is scheduled for Sept. 6. For those of you who enjoy road races or who have thought about giving one a try, I urge you to consider participating. The course is wonderful (I can vouch for it!) and the community is darling. Even Fredbird will be making an appearance at an event where winners are rewarded with pies.

For details on the race, visit this webpage.

If you’re not sure the race is for you but still feel compelled to give back, I have set up a fundraising page. All monies raised will go to the Nancy Ratiliff Foundation. That page can be accessed here.

I hope to rally some support for the Ratliffs from the St. Louis community, as this has been the family’s longtime home. Jason, who is the behind-the-scenes backbone of MLB.com’s Draft and prospect coverage, has worked hard to tell his mother’s story and organize this race. What a wonderful opportunity we now have to give back.

July 3: Cardinals (45-40) @ Giants (46-38)

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

wpid-img_20140703_100653671.jpgAs trying as this 10-game road trip has been for the Cardinals (at least since they left Colorado more than a week ago), the club can finish it at .500 with a win today. Given who the Cardinals have faced and where they have been, .500 would probably be an accomplishment at this point.

Allen Craig is out of the lineup today, as Oscar Taveras gets the right-field start instead. Craig is hitless in his last seven at-bats and is 6-for-34 on this road trip. Jhonny Peralta moves back into the cleanup spot for the fourth time on this trip.

Carlos Martinez will be making his fourth start and is at the point where he is stretched out enough to push toward 100 pitches if all is going well. Martinez threw 82 in his last outing and came out with one out in the fifth. The Cardinals have won each of his three starts.

A reminder, too, that today is the final day to cast online ballots for All-Star Game starters. Yadier Molina was ahead of Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy by close to 500,000 votes on Tuesday. However, Major League Baseball announced today that Lucroy had 24 percent more online votes than Molina on Wednesday. That race for the starting catcher job is tightening. To access the ballot, click here.

Also, for those of you out-of-market readers, today’s game will be shown on MLB Network and on MLB.TV.

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July 2: Cardinals (44-40) @ Giants (46-37)

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

wpid-img_20140702_154524812.jpgOnce reluctant to expose Oscar Taveras to center field at this level, the Cardinals brought him up to the Majors this time with a willingness to use him at the position when circumstances were right. Consider Wednesday the first of those opportunities since Adam Wainwright is on the mound. With manager Mike Matheny’s immediate priority being the need to spark the offense, he keeps Taveras in the lineup without pulling Matt Holliday, Allen Craig or Matt Adams out of it.

The Cardinals come into Wednesday’s game having scored just one run (a Matt Carpenter homer) since Friday. The team has been held scoreless over its last 24 innings. That’s the longest scoreless stretch of the season for the Cardinals, who have been shut out five times since June 1.

In five games against the Giants this season, the Cardinals are batting .176 with two homers. Through eight games on this road trip, the Cards have hit .222. And remember, this was a road trip that opened with three games at Coors Field, where the Cardinals scored 22 runs on 29 hits.

Not that the offense’s struggles are a new development. The Cardinals, with 307 runs scored in 84 games, rank only above the Padres in that category.

And don’t look now — but the Cardinals’ division lead over the Reds and Pirates is just about gone. The Cardinals are only a half-game out of fourth place.

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July 1: Cardinals (44-39) @ Giants (46-36)

Jenifer Langosch/MLB.com

wpid-img_20140701_154506314.jpgOscar Taveras is back with the big league club and he finds himself immediately in the lineup. Manager Mike Matheny explained yesterday that Taveras’ return will give him an opportunity to rest various starters from time to time. On Tuesday, that’s Matt Holliday, despite Holliday’s career .324 average against Giants starter Tim Lincecum.

Allen Craig moves to left — a position he’s more comfortable at and one better suited for his arm — and Taveras takes his place in center. Taveras is also batting second, a spot most recently fitted for Holliday.

“It was good when they called me and said I was going up again,” Taveras said before heading out for batting practice. “I’m ready now. I’m ready to stay here. I’m going to do everything I can do.”

Marco Gonzales is making his second career start, this time in front of a not-so-supportive crowd. He’s also matching up against a pitcher who threw a no-hitter his last time out. Lincecum is one of three pitchers with a no-no this season, and the Cardinals will have now faced all three in a five-game span.

While you’re waiting for the late start in San Francisco, keep an eye on the Triple-A game this evening. Joe Kelly is making his second rehab start. Kolten Wong has joined the Memphis club for a rehab stint, too, and is playing second. You can follow along by clicking here.

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