There was a school of thought that the St. Louis Cardinals were set up for success when they entered a nine-game stretch against the National League's three last-place teams.
With six games in the books, all St. Louis has done is tread water, losing two of three at home to the Miami Marlins before taking two of three games over the weekend in Cincinnati to the Reds.
Sunday's 3-1 victory in Miami gave San Diego four straight series wins for the first time since 2015. While cynics might say two of them are against the Marlins and a third came at the Reds' expense, these are the same teams that battled the Cardinals on even terms all week.
Also, the Padres (31-36) won two of three from the NL East co-leading Atlanta Braves, so they have displayed the ability to beat good teams during this stretch.
"Everybody is doing their homework," Padres shortstop Freddy Galvis told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Everybody is playing the game the right way. The pitching has been good. The bullpen has been awesome. We're trying to be a winning team and that's what we're doing right now."
San Diego is just 5.5 games out of first in the forgiving NL West. There is even talk that the Padres might consider making a run at the division title if they are still close at the trading deadline, a role they have rarely played in the last 10 years.
Jordan Lyles (2-2, 4.70 ERA) will take the ball to start the series for San Diego, hoping for better results than he got in a 14-1 loss Tuesday night against Atlanta. Not even cavernous Petco Park could prevent Lyles from coughing up eight runs, 11 hits and two walks in 4 1/3 innings.
Lyles faced St. Louis last month at home, dropping a 2-1 decision despite pitching decently for five innings. In his career against the Cardinals, the former Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies pitcher is 0-2 with a 4.15 ERA in seven outings, three of them starts.
Jack Flaherty (2-2, 3.20 ERA) gets the call for St. Louis (35-28), and like Lyles, he is aiming for a bounce-back outing. Flaherty absorbed an 11-3 loss Wednesday night to Miami, giving up eight hits and six runs (four earned) in five innings. He walked one and struck out six.
This will be Flaherty's second career start against San Diego. He got a no-decision last September in his second career outing, allowing a run and three hits in five innings of a game the Cardinals won.
St. Louis missed on a chance to gain ground in the NL Central with a sloppy 6-3 loss in Cincinnati, which it had defeated 13 consecutive games. The Cardinals outhit the Reds 11-5, but four pitchers combined to issue 11 walks.
"When you give up that many free bases in that short a time, it's going to be hard to win," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said.