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Series Preview: San Francisco Giants (59-49) @ St. Louis Cardinals (59-49)

After a big 3-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals will welcome the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants into the friendly confines of Busch Stadium for a four game series with monster playoff implications for both teams and the entire NL playoff picture. Having each played 108 games on the season, or two-thirds of a full season, both teams know that the remaining 54 games present an opportunity to solidify a playoff spot or drop back into the pack and miss out on a chance to go for World Series hardware. The Cardinals sit 7 games back of the NL Central leading Cincinnati Reds and 2.5 games back of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second Wild Card spot heading into action Monday.

The Giants come into St. Louis fresh off a 3-game sweep of their own at the expense of the hapless Colorado Rockies in Denver. The Bay Area bunch is anchored by arguably the best starting rotation in all of baseball. Atop the rotation is NL All-Star game starter Matt Cain, who has been dominant this season, posting a 10-4 record with a 2.82 ERA. He is flanked by two other young studs in Madison Bumgarner (3.03 ERA) and Ryan Vogelsong (2.38 ERA) who have Cy Young potential written all over themselves for years into the future. What has plagued the Giants over the past few seasons since their masterful run to a World Series in 2010 has been an anemic offense without big-name sluggers in the middle of the order. Since the days of Barry Bonds, the Giants’ bread and butter has been to get strong starting pitching, manufacture runs through bunts and steals, and seal games with a consistent bullpen.

The Giants sit just a mere ½ game up in the NL West on the surprising Los Angeles Dodgers who have beefed up their roster with the mid-season additions of Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton. In response, the Giants looked to bolster their own lineup, acquiring shortstop Marco Scutaro from the Rockies and slugger Hunter Pence from the deplorable Phillies. Couple that with the MVP-caliber season that outfielder Melky Cabrera has been having and the tremendous comeback season Buster Posey has put up (he missed most of 2011 with a torn ACL) and the Giants now have the semblance of a potent lineup that can complement an already dominant starting pitching staff.

The Cardinals have to be happy to see that Yadier Molina’s right thumb injury is not as serious as initially thought, as Molina had a couple of run-producing hits over the weekend to sure up the middle of the Cards’ lineup. The loss of Lance Berkman to the 15-day DL will obviously hurt, but the Cardinals continue to get clutch hits from the “other guys” like Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso which can temporarily mitigate the significance of Berkman’s absence. Both mid-season bullpen additions, Brian Fuentes and Edward Mujica, have proven to be quite reliable middle relief pitchers. At the back end of the bullpen, Mitchell Boggs has had 23 straight scoreless appearances and Jason Motte has been lights out as well of late.

Let’s take a look at the starting pitching matchups for the series:

Monday: Matt Cain (10-4, 2.82) vs. Jake Westbrook (10-8, 3.79)

This matchup has Giants victory written all over it, but Jake Westbrook has the savvy to keep this game low-scoring. Cain is about as good a right-handed pitcher as there is in the NL right now.

Tuesday: Barry Zito (8-8, 4.27) vs. Lance Lynn (13-4, 3.40)

Lynn has been a lot more effective at home all season, holding hitters to a .206 average and 2 HR at home versus .269 average and 9 HR on the road. Zito has never lived up to his 7 year, $126 million contract, but he can be a serviceable 4th or 5th starter for this stacked Giants rotation.

Wednesday: Ryan Vogelsong (9-5, 2.38) vs. Joe Kelly (2-4, 3.14)

Another pitching mismatch on paper in favor of the Giants, but Kelly has proven to be a guy that limits the damage and keeps his team in ballgames into the 6th and 7th innings.

Thursday: Madison Bumgarner (12-6, 3.03) vs. Adam Wainwright (9-10, 4.03)

Wainwright is coming off a scintillating complete game effort on Saturday night and has been dominant over his last 4 starts. Bumgarner is a crafty southpaw who can mix speeds to keep the Cards’ power right-handed bats at bay.

**For more in-depth Cards news, notes, and analysis and many more hot sports takes, follow Bradley Baskir on Twitter: @BradleyBaskir