CHICAGO • What happened effectively a year ago could happen literally this weekend at the Friendly Confines on the North Side, where the Chicago Cubs await the end of the regular season and could determine whether that also means the end of their rival Cardinals.
The Cubs, having already clinched a franchise-record fourth consecutive playoff berth, host the Cardinals for a three-game series, the longstanding rivalry’s most pivotal since the National League division series in 2015. A year ago, the Cardinals went 1-8 at Wrigley Field, and that was the difference between outpacing the Cubs for the postseason and watching the Cubs in the postseason. This year, the math is simpler, linear, condensed, fixated on as single weekend and in a single series, and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo knows it well.
Three is a serious number for his team, too.
“Stakes are high,” Rizzo said late Thursday night at Wrigley. “We’ve got to win three games – we need to win all three to control our destiny. Two for a playoff. What do they need? It’s all hands on deck. It’s all hands on deck over there. Where they’ve come from firing their manager to being in contention for the second wild card spot is unbelievable. You can’t discredit what they’ve done – that clubhouse, their new manager.
“Hopefully, they run out of gas this weekend.”
With their 3-0 victory against Pittsburgh on Thursday night at home, the Cubs asserted a one-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They have a two-game winning streak and some footing after a sluggish start to the week. If the Cubs (93-66) win all three games against the Cardinals, Milwaukee (92-67) cannot catch them and they’ll be division champs, again. The Cardinals (87-72) had a travel day, and their race is no longer with the Cubs or the Brewers – neither of they can catch in September – but with the NL West also-ran. The Cardinals trail the Dodgers by one game for the second wild-card, their only route into the postseason.
Even if the Cardinals are able to pull off their first sweep at Wrigley since 2016, they still need San Francisco to win one against LA (88-71) and force a tiebreaker.
“We’ve got a team coming in here that’s fighting for their postseason lives,” said Cubs lefty Jon Lester, Thursday’s winner. “We know the challenge is there. They always play us tough. We play them tough. So don’t expect any blowouts. Expect close games. If it was a team we haven’t seen throughout the year a lot, maybe I’d be more nervous about it as far as the game play. I like where we’re at.”
He means in the standings.
He means on a two-game winning streak.
He might as well mean Wrigley.
The Cubs have the best home record in the National League, edging Milwaukee for the moment with a 49-29 ledger. Wrigley was the Cardinals’ undoing a year ago. The Cardinals lost eight of the nine games there and had their worst record amidst the ivy since 1918. In the Cardinals’ eight losses, the Cardinals blew eight leads. They scored a total of 33 runs at Wrigley, but nine of those came in one innings. In the other 80 played, the Cubs outscored them, 43-24.
Take away the Cardinals’ struggles at Wrigley in 2017, and the standings are different. The Cardinals were 86-67 outside of the Confines. The Cubs, 84-69.
The Cubs have Lester, with his 1.17 ERA in his previous eight starts, set for Tuesday’s wild-card playoff game or, if they win the division, Game 1 of a division series. Kyle Hendricks faces Adam Wainwright in Friday’s game. Cole Hamels, a midseason addition to the Cubs’ rotation that has elevated the Cubs, will pitch opposite the Cardinals’ revelation, All-Star Miles Mikolas. On Sunday, in the regular-season finale, lefty Mike Montgomery, the Cubs’ on-again, off-again reliever, will face Jack Flaherty.
The Cardinals reserve the right to alter the rotation based on the importance of the games. They need a quality start from Madison Bumgarner or Dereck Rodriguez out in San Francisco to make Sunday interesting.
Any combination of three LA wins or three Cardinals losses and they’re out.
Where the games are likely to be determined at Wrigley is not the rotation, but the bullpen. Milwaukee feasted on the Cardinals’ middle relief this past week at Busch Stadium, and the situation with the Cubs’ bullpen was obvious Thursday night at Wrigley in the seventh inning. After Lester’s six scoreless innings on his way to what he called a “blue-collar win,” the Cubs turned to Steve Cishek – one of three former Cardinals in the Cubs clubhouse – for a scoreless seventh. In the eight, Carl Edwards Jr. appeared. The Cubs’ bullpen has been undone by injuries and ineffectiveness, and they’ve advertised a pell-mell approach to closing for October. Edwards walked the first batter he face, and his importance revealed itself.
Rizzo walked over the mound immediately and whispered to Edwards.
The righthander found his footing, got through the inning without a bruise, and celebrated as he got the final out with a runner stranded at third.
Rizzo said later how important Edwards was going to be to their playoff push.
“And this weekend,” Rizzo said.
Kyle Schwarber told the Sun-Times before the game that the series against the Cardinals should be “fun.” Jason Heyward, a member of the Cardinals’ 100-win team and last playoff team in 2015, told the player that, “We’re not thinking about that (excrement).” Maddon called it “interesting.” The Cubs manager has three scheduled meetings every season with the team. He completes one in spring training. Another comes at the All-Star break, and then, if all is going as planned for these new Cubs, he has his third meeting at the start of the playoffs.
He held that one Thursday.
His point: The playoffs have started.
A loss means not ending where the Cubs have hoped.
A loss for the Cardinals is more striking.
It’s likely just an end.
“It should be pretty hot around here,” Maddon said after his team’s win Thursday. “They’re going to be ready. We’re going to be ready. Day game. Back to day-game baseball. Weather good?”
A member of the media relations staff nodded.
“Weather good,” Maddon assured. “So, we’ve got that. Just have to wake up. Set that alarm a little bit earlier.”