Firing Matheny after a loss to Cincinnati July 14 and replacing him with bench coach Mike Shildt has apparently been the spark St. Louis needed. With Shildt running the show, the Cardinals are 16-9 and have won five straight series, injecting themselves into the playoff picture.
The Cardinals (63-55) have moved within 5 1/2 games of the first place Chicago Cubs in the National League Central and are just two games back of Milwaukee for the NL's second wild card. They have won five consecutive series.
St. Louis' improvement under Shildt has been an across-the-board deal. Its offense has been more aggressive and powerful, its bullpen appears to have steadied thanks to an influx of young pitchers and its once-shaky defense has given opponents fewer outs.
Sunday's 8-2 win at Kansas City featured a seven-run outburst in the last three innings as a patient approach yielded big results against the Royals' weak bullpen. The win finished a 7-2 road trip and gave the Cardinals a five-game winning streak.
"Good all-around game," Shildt said. "We had a good road trip and a good series."
To begin this series, St. Louis will call on its best starter this year, right-hander Miles Mikolas (12-3, 2.74 ERA). He's coming off an efficient 3-2 win Tuesday night in Miami which saw him negotiate seven innings on just 81 pitches, permitting five hits and two runs with no walks and a strikeout.
Mikolas, who's 4-0 over his last seven starts and has allowed more than two runs just once in that span, will make his first career start against the Nationals. He relieved against them once, getting touched for two hits and two runs in one-third of an inning for San Diego in 2012.
The Nationals (60-58) come into town off perhaps their toughest loss of the year. One strike away from a 3-0 win at the Cubs on Sunday night, they instead lost 4-3 when pinch-hitter David Bote clouted a grand slam off closer Ryan Madson.
Washington will give the ball to journeyman left-hander Tommy Milone (1-1, 5.50 ERA), who's modeling its uniform for the second time in his eight-year career. Milone last worked on Wednesday night, absorbing a 10-hit, seven-run pounding from Atlanta over six innings in an 8-3 loss at Nationals Park.
He's won both his career starts against the Cardinals, pitching to a 3.46 earned run average with 10 strikeouts and two walks in 13 innings.
Washington enters the series trailing co-leaders Atlanta and Philadelphia by 5 1/2 games in the NL East.