CINCINNATI - Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick are back in the Reds' lineup against the Cardinals Friday night and not a minute too soon to try to boost the team's sagging offense.
The Reds (21-24) have dropped from third-best in the NL in runs scored per game last year (4.3) to third-worst (3.6) this year.
Bruce has been out since May 2 with a partially torn meniscus in his left knee.
"I'm excited to be back, I really am. I worked hard to get back," Bruce said before Friday's game.
But the Reds were struggling for offense even before Bruce and Joey Votto went out. Votto went on the disabled list this week with a quad injury.
Bruce is hitting .216 with three homers – not the stuff of cleanup hitters.
Ludwick hasn't been much better - .246 with two homers.
Ludwick last played on Tuesday, giving the left fielder two full days to rest his injured left leg.
Even with Votto out, manager Bryan Price believes his team can hit better.
"We have the players to do it," Price said this week. "Now we're getting fairly reliable pitching, we've been spectacular defensively … and we have the ability to do more offensively. We know that we're better than we've performed."
They will have to be to beat the rival Cardinals (26-21), who have won eight of their last 10 to climb within 1½ games of the first-place Brewers (28-20).
The Reds trail the Cardinals by four and the Brewers by 5½.
The Cardinals have won four of six games from the Reds this season and nine of their last 10 series.
"It's always fun to play them," Price said. "The games are always high-spirited, competitive. I think there is a mutual respect, a mutual desire to go out there and knock the other one down a little bit."
Homer Bailey (3-3) throws for the Reds against Shelby Miller (6-2).
Bailey is 0-1 in two April starts against St. Louis, with an ERA of 7.72.
Miller is 0-1 against the Reds with an ERA of 4.50.
The Reds and Cardinals play 10 more times this season after Friday night.