The St. Louis Cardinals are focused on defending their World Series title, but first they must earn their first playoff berth under manager Mike Matheny.
Having experienced the thrill of winning a division crown just two years ago, the Cincinnati Reds are also intent on making up a small deficit in the NL Central.
The Cardinals and Reds will continue their respective drives for the postseason when they open a three-game series and the season's second half Friday night in Cincinnati.
St. Louis (46-40) enters the second half 2 1/2 games behind Pittsburgh for the NL Central lead, and one-half game behind Cincinnati (47-38) and Atlanta for the wild card spots.
The Cardinals might get some help on their six-game road trip if Lance Berkman returns from the disabled list as expected. A knee injury has kept the first baseman - who also spent time on the DL earlier this season due to a calf strain - out of the lineup since May 19.
"It just doesn't seem like we've even hit our stride yet," Matheny, whose club won six of eight heading into the break, told the Cardinals' official website. "You guys can call me the perpetual optimist if you'd like, but I still think our best baseball is in front of us. Those six-, eight-, 10-game winning streaks, there's no reason why this team shouldn't be able to do that."
After winning three straight to conclude a season-high 11-game road trip through California before the All-Star break, the Reds could move into a tie for first place Friday with a victory and a Pirates loss.
"We've played OK. We were in first place for about 50 days, and we're still right there," outfielder Jay Bruce told the team's official website. "We're still in a great position to be there at the end."
The Cardinals have taken four of six matchups with the Reds this season, all in April. Adam Wainwright (7-8, 4.56 ERA), Friday's scheduled starter for St. Louis, took the loss in the final of those six games April 19, giving up four runs over five innings at Busch Stadium.
The right-hander had better luck the last time he pitched in Cincinnati on Aug. 11, 2010, yielding two hits and no walks over seven scoreless innings of a 6-1 win.
Wainwright will be opposed by Mat Latos (7-2, 4.13), who is 2-0 with a 0.72 ERA over his last three starts and has won a career-high seven consecutive decisions since getting tagged by the Cardinals for eight runs over 5 2-3 innings of an 11-1 rout April 18 in St. Louis.
Latos is 1-3 with an 11.37 ERA in four career starts against the Cardinals and has given up at least seven runs in each of the three defeats.
Carlos Beltran, the NL leader with 65 RBIs, has three homers - one in April - in four career at-bats versus Latos. Shortstop Rafael Furcal is 7 for 17 off Latos, and batting .409 (9 for 22) against Cincinnati this season.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto, fifth in the NL with a .348 average, is 8 for 22 (.364) against the Cardinals this season but 1 for 14 lifetime versus Wainwright, his worst showing against any pitcher he's faced at least 14 times.