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Series Preview: New York Mets vs. St. Louis Cardinals

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The Mets open up the second half of the season with three matches against the top team in the National League.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Two days without baseball! It's lasted even longer than that awkward off day right after Opening Day. I think that one is worse for me, though. After a whole winter of no baseball and a whole month of trying to get excited about spring training, Opening Day feels so awesome. To be forced to go 24 hours without the Mets right after that is a huge tease. Now that it's July and we've been through three months of baseball, I don't mind a little break in which I don't have to worry about the sky falling after every shutout loss. However, I also know that a lot of you don't feel the same.

And that's why it's great to see that Mets are back in action tonight with sexy stud Noah Syndergaard on the mound against the team with the best record in the National League, the Cardinals! Can the Mets keep riding that wonderful wave of momentum that they found last week, or will the Redbirds send them tumbling back into neutral?

The best team in baseball or just the best fans in baseball?

With more wins than any other team and a plus-91 run differential, it's hard to make the case for anyone but St. Louis being tops in baseball right now. However, that could change soon after Pittsburgh took three of four games from the Cardinals leading into the All-Star break. Will Mike Matheny's club be stronger after regrouping?

I'd say yes, but not because of the rest. The important thing is that Matt Holliday (.303/.417/.421) is looking to make tonight his first game back from a strained quad that has held him out since early June. St. Louis has been getting solid production from Randal Grichuk (.277/.319/.534) and Jason Heyward (.273/.327/.416) in the corners this year, but Holliday should at least prove to be an improvement over Grichuk, whose 30-percent strikeout rate is not going to hold his on-base percentage up for very much longer.

If Matheny wants more offense, he could perhaps try Grichuk or Heyward in center field and relegate both Peter Bourjos (.235/.320/.362) and rookie Tommy Pham (.338/.402/.625 at Triple-A Memphis) to the bench in order to get his best three hitting outfielders in the lineup. That might cost the team some defense, though.

And defense has been important to the Cardinals and their pitching staff that doesn't strike out many batters when Lance Lynn or Carlos Martinez aren't on the mound. Both Michael Wacha and John Lackey strike out around seven batters per nine innings, but they limit walks and keep the ball in the yard, which allows the defense to keep their low ERA intact.

Not only are middle infielders Kolten Wong (.280/.343/.434) and Jhonny Peralta (.298/.355/.473) keeping their pitchers in the game with good defense; they're also two of St. Louis's top offensive players. That creates a backwards offensive system in which the second baseman and shortstop carry the lineup while the team struggles to get production out of first base. That's what has been the case for the Cardinals since Matt Adams was lost for the year with quad surgery. They've been getting walks and some power out of Mark Reynolds (.222/.292/.389), but his 32-percent strikeout rate has been such a problem that veteran journeyman Dan Johnson was recently called up to help against righties.

Feast or famine at Citi Field

The last time the Mets played the Cardinals, it was in a four-game set this May at Citi Field. The home team was able to earn a split despite being outscored 20-9 in aggregate. Thank goodness for that young pitching, huh? Both Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom pitched gems in the first and last games of the series, respectively. Harvey didn't earn the "win" thanks to John Lackey and New York's offensive futility, but the Mets prevailed 2-1 thanks to a 14th-inning infield single by John Mayberry that drove in the winning run.

Mayberry had another RBI single during deGrom's start, which might have been the right-hander's finest of the season. After Mayberry put the Mets up 1-0, they might as well have put their bats away, because deGrom struck out 11 batters in eight innings while allowing just one hit and zero walks for a 91 game score. It's almost as shame that Lucas Duda hit a pair of home runs to make the game comfortable, or Terry Collins might have allowed deGrom to stay on the mound for the ninth inning. Instead, Jeurys Familia easily wrapped up the 5-0 victory.

The middle games weren't nearly as pretty for New York, as the Redbirds would score eight runs off of Jon Niese in a 10-2 win and follow that up with a shellacking of Bartolo Colon in a 9-0 shutout. Grichuk was critical in both St. Louis wins with a combined five hits (all for extra bases!) and four RBI.

Who is pitching on Sunday?

The only two St. Louis pitchers to defeat the Mets this year are Wacha and Martinez, but only one of them will take the mound this weekend. Which right-hander the Mets see, however, is still up in the air, as the Cardinals have not announced their Sunday starter yet.

No matter who that guy ends up being, we can say that he's done a great job helping St. Louis to maintain a best-in-the-majors 2.71 ERA despite the loss of Adam Wainwright to an Achilles injury earlier this year. Martinez still walks a few more batters than you'd like him to, but he more than makes up for that by striking out more than a batter per inning and posting an awesome 56-percent ground ball rate.

Martinez has had trouble getting lefties out in the past, but check out that changeup he got Murphy with. Yeesh.

Wacha, on the other hand, has seen his strikeout rate dip below 20 percent for the first time in his career, but he's still missing enough bats and getting enough ground balls to be a highly effective starter. The key for him is control of the strike zone (only two walks per nine innings this year).

Two guys the Mets will certainly see in this series are Lackey and Lynn. The veteran Lackey has provided great value to St. Louis despite getting off to a rough start in 2015. He's completed the seventh inning while allowing two runs or fewer in five of his last six starts heading into the break. If he pitches like he did the last time he faced the Mets, New York is in trouble.

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Cardinals Probable Starter
July 17, 2015 8:15 PM SNY Noah Syndergaard Lance Lynn
July 18, 2015 7:15 PM PIX 11 Bartolo Colon John Lackey
July 19, 2015 2:15 PM SNY Jon Niese TBD

Lynn is someone the Mets haven't seen this year, and that's probably a good thing. The underrated 28-year-old needed to step up his game after Wainwright's injury, and he's come through in a big way with career-best strikeout and walk rates that have led to a 2.90 ERA and 2.80 FIP.

The good news is that the Mets are one of few teams that can match up to the Cardinals when it comes to starting pitching. Tonight's starter Syndergaard has been brilliant in his last three outings with at least six innings pitched and only one run allowed in each.

Colon and Niese are both coming off of solid starts, but that won't matter if they get shelled by St. Louis again. The lefty was in the middle of a serious rough stretch the last time the Mets faced the Cardinals, but lately he's been back to allowing three runs or fewer in all but one of his outings since the start of June.

Prediction: Cardinals win two of three.

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