The defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals are on the verge of locking up a second consecutive trip to the postseason.
While the Cincinnati Reds have long since clinched, they're running out of time to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Winners of 11 of 14, the Cardinals look to keep rolling Tuesday night as they continue a three-game set against a visiting Reds team that hasn't been able to muster much offense of late.
Jaime Garcia threw 6 2-3 strong innings and hit his second career homer to help lead the Cardinals (87-73) to a 4-2 victory Monday, spoiling manager Dusty Baker's return to the Reds' dugout.
The Cardinals sit two games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second NL wild-card spot with two to go.
"We've got to win," manager Mike Matheny said. " ... You have to just kind of play it out and don't get too far ahead of yourself."
The Cardinals can clinch a playoff berth with a win Tuesday or a Dodgers' loss to San Francisco.
"It's different with this one-game playoff looming over our heads if we get there," second baseman Daniel Descalso said. "I wouldn't expect a raucous celebration but, you know, some celebration is in order if we do clinch it."
Baker, who missed Cincinnati's previous 11 games after suffering a mini-stroke, saw his team's offensive woes continue Monday. The Reds (96-64) have split their last six games, scoring one or two runs five times over that stretch while hitting .220 -- including .139 with runners in scoring position.
Cincinnati remains tied with Washington for the NL's best record after the Nationals fell 2-0 on Monday. The Reds need to finish ahead of Washington in order to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after losing the head-to-head series.
"The way I look at it, the big one's to come," said Baker, who missed the club's division-clinching win and Homer Bailey's no-hitter Friday.
Cincinnati, though, can't be feeling good about a matchup against Chris Carpenter (0-1, 3.27 ERA). The right-hander has typically dominated the Reds over the course of his career, going 12-1 with a 2.28 ERA over his last 15 starts in the series.
Carpenter is still seeking his first win since debuting late last month following shoulder surgery on his throwing arm. The veteran right-hander yielded two runs over five innings during a 5-4, 11-inning road loss to the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 21 before giving up two runs and four hits over six innings Wednesday in a 2-0 loss at Houston.
"I'm glad I was able to build off Chicago and come in tonight and try to do a little better and give my team a chance to win," he told the team's official website. "And if I can get better for the next one, that's what we're looking for ... I'm still working the kinks out a little bit."
The Reds, meanwhile, are hoping to see Mat Latos (13-4, 3.52) come out with another strong showing in his final postseason tuneup. The right-hander is 8-2 with a 2.45 ERA over the last three months, allowing two earned runs or fewer in all but four of 18 starts over that stretch.
After throwing eight innings of six-hit ball during a 6-0 win over the Dodgers on Sept. 22, Latos surrendered one run and three hits over seven innings of Thursday's 2-1, walk-off victory over Milwaukee.
Latos, though, can't be looking forward to facing St. Louis. He was tagged for seven runs and nine hits in five-plus innings during an 8-5 loss Aug. 24, dropping to 1-4 with a 10.24 ERA over six starts against the Cardinals -- his highest career ERA against any opponent.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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