As two of the top three teams in the National League Central, the Reds and Cardinals carry a playoff-like atmosphere with them into Tuesday night's showdown at Busch Stadium.
For both clubs, this week's series, including Tuesday's matchup between right-handers Mat Latos and Joe Kelly, is a taste of what they hope are even more meaningful games to be played in October.
"I think right now our guys are just picturing every game like a postseason game," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We've been doing that all season, at least that's how we talk. You keep hearing the same things being said from the people around you, which the veteran players on this team know, they have a responsibility of playing the game that way. It helps with two things. One, it helps break the season down into being as good as you can be every night.
"And two, if you are fortunate enough to make it into the postseason, you're not going to be shocked, you're not going to be out of water, because that's the same way you've been playing all season long."
As it stands following the Cardinals' comeback win over the Reds on Monday, St. Louis is in first place in the NL Central by a half-game over the idle Pirates. Cincinnati sits 3 1/2 games off the lead but still owns a six-game cushion over Arizona in the race for the second Wild Card spot.
Much of that could change in the coming weeks, though, as the Reds and Cardinals are set to see a lot of each other -- and the second-place Pirates -- Tuesday night and beyond.
The Cardinals opened up a stretch on Monday in which they play 13 straight games against the Reds and Pirates. After wrapping up the current series with Cincinnati, St. Louis will enjoy an off-day before playing a three-game set in Pittsburgh and four games against the Reds at Great American Ball Park. Then it's back to St. Louis to host the Pirates for three more.
Cincinnati blew a chance to gain on the Cardinals on Monday night, when they lost, 8-6, after holding a 4-0 lead through the first two innings. However, a win on Tuesday would give them a chance for the series victory on Wednesday. Although Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick said winning the series is the goal against every opponent, doing so against St. Louis would be even more crucial.
"If you win 80 percent of your series during the season, you're going to be in the postseason," Ludwick said. "Everybody knows it's a big game, a big series. It's the Cardinals. They're ahead of us. The Pirates are ahead of us."
Reds: Recently dominant Latos takes mound
Latos has been about as good as it gets lately for the Reds.
Entering his 27th start of the season on Tuesday, Latos has given up three runs over his last four outings, including a pair of shutout performances. Cincinnati has won three of those games, with the only loss coming on Aug. 17 in Milwaukee, where Latos gave up just two runs in seven innings but watched his offense flounder in a 2-0 decision.
Most recently, Latos -- 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA in three starts against the Cardinals this season -- held the D-backs to one run in eight innings on Thursday despite getting sick three times throughout the course of the game. The 25-year-old right-hander's gritty effort drew high praise from his manager, Dusty Baker.
"Sometimes Latos in the past was having trouble staying in those games," Baker said. "But he's growing before our eyes, and he did what aces do."
Cardinals: Kelly looks to continue winning ways
Kelly joined the Cardinals' rotation for good on July 6. In the eight starts since then, Kelly has gone 5-0 with a 2.33 ERA, as St. Louis has won seven of those games, including five straight.
On Tuesday against the Reds, the 25-year-old right-hander will look to make it six in a row.
Despite coming out of the bullpen for the first three months of the season, Kelly will be seeing the Reds for the first time in 2013. He enters Tuesday coming off a win over the Braves on Thursday in which he allowed two runs on seven hits and two walks in six innings. Although he said he didn't have his best stuff in that start, Kelly stranded six runners and recorded 11 ground-ball outs.
"I love when he goes out there and competes," second baseman Matt Carpenter said. "He's aggressive and pitching with confidence. When you have a clubhouse that sees that, you go into the game knowing we're going to get a good start. That's where you want to be as a pitcher, and that's what he's got going."
• The Cardinals are 33-22 against NL Central opponents this year as they seek their fifth consecutive season with a winning record against the division.
• Despite a triple and a double on Monday, Reds shortstop Zack Cozart enters Tuesday batting .140 (6-for-43) in 12 career games at Busch Stadium.
• The Reds are just 2-7 in their last nine games against the Cardinals, and they'll look to avoid dropping their seventh straight series to St. Louis on Tuesday.
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.