Despite having the best ERA at the All-Star break in 34 years, the St. Louis Cardinals have lost a lofty lead in the NL Central partly due to an inconsistent offense.
Now they're hoping the return of their All-Star left fielder can provide a spark in the second half of the season.
With Matt Holliday expected back, the Cardinals look to avoid their fourth straight loss Friday night against a visiting New York Mets team coming off its best first half in five years.
St. Louis (56-33) has soared to baseball's best record behind a pitching staff that owns a 2.71 ERA, the majors' lowest at the break since the 1981 Houston Astros posted a 2.81 mark. The rotation also has a collective 2.84 ERA, the best pre-break showing by the franchise since 1968 when Bob Gibson set a major-league record with a 1.12 mark.
"Our pitching sets the tone," manager Mike Matheny said. "Guys have been doing a nice job of keeping us in games all the way through, the bullpen has done a nice job of finishing it up."
Matheny's club, however, had a division lead that was once nine games trimmed to 2 1/2 after dropping three of four at Pittsburgh entering the break. The Cardinals have batted just .215 with eight home runs while losing nine of their last 14 games.
Holliday's return to the No. 3 slot could offer a boost to a lineup that's scored three or fewer runs nearly half of the time. The outfielder, who was elected to the All-Star Game, batted .303 with three home runs and 26 RBIs in 52 games before suffering a torn quadriceps muscle in early June.
Holliday won't have it easy in a potential first game back against New York's Noah Syndergaard (4-4, 3.11 ERA), who has gone 2-0 with a 1.97 ERA over his last five starts.
Syndergaard was outstanding in his last outing July 10, allowing one run and four hits with a career-high 13 strikeouts over eight innings in a 4-2 home win over Arizona.
The rookie right-hander, who has never faced St. Louis, hasn't been nearly as sharp on the road. He's gone 0-3 with a 5.33 ERA in five starts away from Citi Field.
New York's starters have been solid overall, yielding 19 earned runs over their last 109 2-3 innings.
"(As a staff) We got a lot of confidence in our stuff," left-hander Jonathon Niese said. "We just go out there and we attack hitters. We're having a lot of success."
The Mets (47-42) are seeking their longest winning streak since a season-high 11-game run in April. They rank 28th with 3.48 runs per game but haven't scored fewer than four during a four-game win streak.
St. Louis right-hander Lance Lynn (6-5, 2.90) had been 3-0 with an 0.85 ERA over a five-start stretch before allowing five runs in four innings during a 5-2 loss at Pittsburgh on July 10.
Duda hit two home runs to help New York split a four-game home series with St. Louis in May. The Mets, however, have gone 5-14 at Busch Stadium since the start of 2009.