By JOSH SCHUR
(AP) -- St. Louis has been powered by strong starting pitching all season long. If that trend doesn't continue in Colorado, the Cardinals may soon find themselves out of the race for the NL Central with the way the Cincinnati Reds are playing.
Kyle Lohse (10-2, 2.71 ERA), a shining example of his staff's consistency throughout the year, takes the mound for St. Louis, which will look to take advantage of a three-game set against the struggling Rockies on Tuesday night.
With the exception of just one game, the Cardinals (54-48) have had their starter last at least six innings in every contest in July, and no pitcher has symbolized that strength more than Lohse. The right-hander will be looking for his 11th quality start in a row, a streak that goes back to a five-inning outing May 30, as the trade deadline looms Tuesday.
"Our starters have been great," general manager John Mozeliak told the team's official website. "I think clearly it takes a little pressure off, in terms of feeling like we have to do something."
The Cardinals' starting pitchers are tied for tops in the NL with 44 wins.
Lohse, in particular, has been fantastic. He has not lost a game since June 15 and is 4-0 with 2.22 ERA in his last seven starts. He did not receive a decision in his last outing, going seven innings and allowing two runs in the team's eventual 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers last Wednesday night.
Yet for all its strong pitching, St. Louis finds itself well behind the streaking Reds for the division lead, and Pittsburgh shows no intention of cooling off either. Despite going 7-3 in its last 10 games, the team has lost three games in the standings to Cincinnati and made up no ground against the Pirates, going into Monday night's action.
The Cardinals didn't help themselves by dropping two straight to the lowly Chicago Cubs, including a walkoff loss Sunday when Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run homer in the 10th to end it. They'll hope to have better luck taking advantage of the soft schedule at Coors Field.
Colorado (37-63) is looking to rebound after being swept at home by Cincinnati, but despite its overall struggles, the Rockies are a prime contender to get to Cardinals' starters early, as they lead the majors in first-inning runs.
Even with the second-worst record in the majors, Colorado has had no trouble scoring. It is second in runs in the NL with 471 - behind only St. Louis' 498.
As always, the problems for the Rockies reside mostly with their pitching. Their starting rotation has a league-low 18 wins all season, and the team's ERA of 5.30 is the highest in the majors.
"The pitching is the biggest struggle of my career," manager Jim Tracy told the team's official website. "But it's not an excuse."
Colorado has had 12 different pitchers start a game this season, and only Jeff Francis has a winning record.
Conveniently enough for the Rockies, he's Tuesday's starter.
Following a minor-league stint with Cincinnati, Francis (3-2, 4.97 ERA) has started 10 games since signing with Colorado. He comes off a solid performance against Arizona - six innings, two runs, five hits - in which he earned a victory July 25.
"I hope it's a lesson for some of our younger people," said Tracy. "Eight of his last nine starts, he's five or five-plus innings every time and he leaves the game in the kind of shape he left it tonight. That's what you hope for."
Francis has repeated that type of success against the Cardinals his entire career, as he is 6-1 with a 3.09 ERA in 11 career appearances. In his last start against them, July 3, he earned the win, allowing two runs in five innings.
The Rockies lost the other three games in that series, however, as the high-scoring Colorado offense was held at bay by the Cardinals staff, scoring just nine runs over four games.
Updated July 30, 2012