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CIN@PIT: Cingrani strikes out seven to earn the win

The defending National League champions watched the Milwaukee Brewers burst out of the gate at the beginning of the season, leading to what became a 6 1/2-game deficit for the Cardinals in the NL Central by April 29.

But the Cards have reeled off seven wins in their last 10 games, and now trail Milwaukee by 2 1/2 games in the standings as they face another division rival, the Cincinnati Reds, in the second game of a three-game set at Great American Ball Park on Saturday.

"I think guys have had consistent energy and preparation, but we had a couple things go our way, a couple good series," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said Friday. "That just builds more confidence more than anything else."

Left-hander Jaime Garcia is scheduled to take the mound for St. Louis, looking to even the series after the Reds won, 5-3, Friday night. History is on his side, as the southpaw goes into the start with a 9-2 record and 3.18 ERA in 15 career appearances (13 starts) against Cincinnati.

The Reds, meanwhile, continue to try and keep from falling too far behind in the NL Central while they await the return of Joey Votto (injured left quad). They have gotten Jay Bruce back after he underwent knee surgery, and hope he will begin to contribute to an offense that has scored the third fewest runs in the Majors (165).

Left-hander Tony Cingrani is slated to take the ball for Cincinnati, and will be making his second start since returning from the disabled list with left shoulder tendinitis. Cingrani gave up a career-high four runs and seven hits over six innings in an 8-3 loss at Philadelphia on May 18.

The southpaw has faced the Cardinals five times in his career, and twice already in 2014. Overall, he is 2-1 with a 3.27 ERA against St. Louis. In his last outing against the Cards, he took the loss after surrendering three runs on three hits, walking four and striking out five in four innings at Busch Stadium on April 7.

Cardinals: Neshek becoming go-to guy in bullpen
Pat Neshek, who joined the Cardinals in an under-the-radar Minor League deal in February, has emerged as their most dominant reliever through the first eight weeks of the season.

With two more shutout innings on Thursday, Neshek stretched his scoreless appearance streak to 18. It's the longest such string of scoreless outings in Neshek's career, bettering the 15 he had from April 21-May 23, 2007. That came in Neshek's first full big league season, when he was with the Twins.

Now, seven years, four teams and a Tommy John surgery later, Neshek said: "I feel just like I did when I was at my peak. That's how I feel right now."

He has been scored upon in just two of his 23 appearances this season. During this stretch of scoreless games, Neshek has been nearly untouchable. He's walked one, struck out 19 and allowed five hits in 16 2/3 innings. Of the 15 runners he's inherited during that span, four have scored. The success has slowly earned Neshek a more prominent role, too.

Reds: Bruce back and feeling good
RBruce was back in the Reds' lineup Friday after missing 14 games due to a torn meniscus in his left knee. He had arthroscopic surgery May 5 and said Friday that he feels good. He doubled and scored a run in the series-opening win.

"I got basically three weeks of complete and utter rehab. It was a very easy surgery," Bruce said. "Fortunately, we had [four] off-days in that span, so I only missed 13-14 games, which is really important to me."

Bruce said that being hurt gave him the chance to trust in his offseason conditioning since he hasn't been able to play in nearly three weeks, but he's thrilled to be back on the field.

"It gives you the opportunity to trust the things that you work on and the training that you go through in the offseason," he said. "And it gives you the opportunity to apply all the strengths that you have. I'm excited to be able to do that, and I definitely don't look back and say, 'Oh, because I was hurt I did this or didn't do this.' That's not how I tend to approach things. But I'm happy to be healthy again."

Worth noting
• Since April 13, the Cardinals and Reds have the top two win-loss records in the NL Central, at 20-17 and 19-16, respectively.

• Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco went 1-for-4 with his fifth home run of the season in Friday's series opener. The catching trio of Mesoraco, Brayan Pena and Tucker Barnhart have combined to hit .297 (51-for-172) with eight home runs and 26 RBIs.

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