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05/16/10 7:57 PM ET

Cards, Nationals in unfamiliar territory

The Cardinals and Nationals both enter Monday's meeting that begins a rare two-game series at Busch Stadium in unexpected places.

After losing two out of three against the division-rival Reds, the Cardinals are out of first place in the NL Central for the first time since July 30, 2009, while the Nationals are off to surprising start with a 20-18 record, which is impressive considering they didn't win their 20th game until June 19 last season.

The Cardinals, however, aren't too worried about being one-half game out of first place behind the Reds, especially because it's still so early in the season.

"We were in first place until they won, and that [didn't] guarantee us the playoffs automatically," first baseman Albert Pujols said after the Cardinals' 7-2 loss on Sunday. "Until the last game of the season, that's when you want to be there. If this would have been the last game of the season and we would have fallen out of first place, it would be a big deal. but we've still got a lot of games against that ballclub, and we've still got a lot of games against great ballclubs in the Central Division."

The Cardinals will look to get back to their winning form when they start right-hander Kyle Lohse on Monday while the Nationals will counter with right-hander Craig Stammen.

St. Louis dominated the season series against Washington last season with a 6-1 record and have won 11 of their last 13 against the Nationals.

But the Nationals are much improved this season and are in the thick of the NL East race behind the Phillies after an impressive start.

But as Pujols noted, these early-season standings for both teams don't guarantee anything quite yet.

"We don't care about first place right now, because first place is a long way from now," Pujols said. "You still have a long season. I think the idea is to try to win series, and that's what we focus and concentrate on every day."

Nationals: Hernandez steps up
The Nationals will start right-hander Livan Hernandez on short rest on Wednesday against the Mets at Nationals Park after their two-game series with the Cardinals, manager Jim Riggleman announced on Sunday. Hernandez volunteered to make the start, which was necessary after their doubleheader against the Rockies last Saturday. "Livan said, 'Hey, you are going to probably need a pitcher Wednesday. Let me pitch that day,'" Riggleman said. "We picked him, and he volunteered for it at the same time. So somebody is going to pitch that day."

Cardinals: Ryan struggling to find groove
Shortstop Brendan Ryan, who is in a deep slump that has seen him go 1-for-28 since May 4, will see decreased playing time for a little while, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said on Sunday. Ryan is batting just .162 with a .248 on-base percentage this season and will be "backed off" from his every day duties according to La Russa. Tyler Greene and Felipe Lopez, who will return soon from the disabled list, are expected to see increased playing time at shortstop as a result. "I just think right now, he's giving indications like he's struggling enough to where it's unfair to play him," La Russa said. "Unfair to him, unfair to us. You don't want to push a guy out there when he's really struggling."

Worth noting
Cardinals pinch-hitters entered the day Sunday leading the National League in hits with 18, batting average at .333, and slugging percentage at .550, and second in the league with a .390 on-base percentage. ... Cardinals starting catcher Yadier Molina and starting right fielder Ryan Ludwick both sat, in favor of Jason LaRue and Jon Jay, respectively on Sunday but are expected to be back in the lineup on Monday against the Nationals. ... Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn was scratched from Sunday's lineup because of flu-like symptoms and will be a game-time decision on Monday.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.