Outstanding pitching has the St. Louis Cardinals inching closer to another trip to the postseason, but Michael Wacha's shoulder could derail his involvement.
Wacha attempts to shake off his recent troubles in his first start in 11 days and lead the Cardinals to another home victory over the skidding Cincinnati Reds on Saturday night.
St. Louis (86-68) is atop the NL Central by 2 1/2 games over second-place Pittsburgh with eight left in the regular season - one fewer than the Pirates.
The Cardinals' arms, however, are doing more than enough to keep them at a distance, compiling a 1.41 ERA during a 6-1 stretch with the rotation accounting for five of those wins and a 1.09 ERA.
John Lackey provided the latest gem Friday, allowing one run in 7 2-3 innings of a 2-1 win over the Reds (71-83) as he tried to improve his chance of making the playoff rotation.
That could come at Wacha's expense, as he'll gets his third start after spending almost three months on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.
The right-hander (5-6, 3.14 ERA), last year's NL championship series MVP as a rookie, may have been feeling the effects of that injury at Cincinnati on Sept. 9, when control issues plagued him in a 9-5 loss. He gave up six runs with three walks in four innings, and manager Mike Matheny doesn't seem hesitant to pull him if he sees similar numbers this time.
"I don't see us going backwards," Matheny told MLB's official website of a potential pitch count. "I think we'll have kind of a number in mind. If he looks good, we'll stretch him. If he doesn't, we're not going to necessarily have to push it to a number. We have to win a game."
Prior to his last meeting with the Reds, Wacha had allowed one run in 22 2-3 innings while going 1-0 in four games - three starts - against them.
He may feel good about re-establishing that success since the Cardinals have won 10 of the past 12 home meetings with Cincinnati, which has been outscored 22-4 while batting .167 during a five-game overall slide.
The Reds mustered seven singles in the opener of this three-game set as they fell to 22-38 in one-run decisions - the most defeats in the majors in those close contests.
"It's a broken record," manager Bryan Price said. "To be honest with you, it's at the point where you're tired talking about the same game, losing 2-1, 3-2.
"At some point in time we've got to do something to win some of these games."
Giving the ball to Mike Leake (11-12, 3.65) may not help since he's feeling the impact of logging a career-high 202 1-3 innings, 10 more than his previous most set last year.
The right-hander allowed three runs and three walks while hitting one batter in six innings of a 9-2 loss at Milwaukee on Sunday.
"I had a little dead arm. I didn't have the full ability to give full effort," Leake said. "Dead arm can get you. It's one of those things that's hard to explain, but everybody understands what it is.
Leake is 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA in four starts against the Cardinals this season, allowing three runs with six strikeouts in six innings opposite Wacha on Sept. 9.
Matt Holliday may be thrilled to face Leake since he's 13 for 33 (.394) against him. The left fielder is hitting .365 with 18 RBIs in his past 19 home meetings with Cincinnati after homering and doubling Friday.