When the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals hook horns, it’s always an exciting series.
This weekend, Ricky Renteria’s club will head south to take on Mike Matheny‘s second-place Cardinals team that enters play Friday trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by 1 1/2 games in the division race. Pittsburgh is just 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis, setting up the season’s final month as one that could very well be determined by the Cubs.
Chicago (59-74) plays National League Central opponents 18 times in the month of September – including St. Louis three times, Milwaukee six times and Pittsburgh six times. With that schedule in mind, it’s also important to point out that Chicago is just 20-34 against Central teams this year. But before we can turn the calendar over to September, the Cubs could get a head start on playing spoiler with this weekend’s four-game set.
Against the Redbirds this season, Chicago is 4-7, and the team enters its final series of August with its best winning percentage of the season in any given month, thanks to a 14-11 clip that includes a three-game sweep of the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles.
The bad news for the Cubs? Injured Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina is expected to start the series opener behind the plate on Friday, after working feverishly to return from a thumb injury, according to MLB.com.
"With an eye on rejoining St. Louis for the home stretch, Molina expedited his recovery with an aggressive rehab program. He was throwing and hitting earlier than expected, and he started a rehab assignment with Double-A Springfield on Wednesday that will last just two days, if all goes well."
Why exactly is that bad news? Molina is widely regarded as one of the game’s best receivers behind the dish and has torn up Chicago pitching in his big league career, which is now in its 11th year.
In 133 career games against the Cubs, Molina is a /307/.366/.454 hitter with 13 home runs, 76 RBIs and 28 doubles. He’s come up in the clutch against Chicago time and time again and having his bat back in the Cardinals lineup changes how this club looks a great deal.
As noted, the Cubs will turn to rookie Kyle Hendricks in Friday’s opener. This will be his first start at Busch Stadium, but he has already faced the Cardinals once this season – when he was a tough-luck loser at Wrigley on July 27. The rookie allowed just one earned over 6 1/3 innings as the Cubs dropped a close contest.
A pair of southpaws – Felix Doubront and Tsuyoshi Wada – will take the hill for Chicago in Saturday’s day-night doubleheader. Doubront, who spent most of the season with Boston, will make his Cubs debut in the opener and Wada, a 34-year-old veteran who has been impressive, pitching to the tune of 2.12 ERA in the month of August, will look to close the day out for Chicago.
In Sunday’s finale, southpaw Travis Wood will take on John Lackey – with the Chicago lefty coming off a nice start after going winless in his previous dozen outings. Establishing control of the zone early – especially with his breaking pitches – will be key for Wood, who is looking to find consistency as the season winds down.
Another aspect of this series will be the Cubs young prospects who are getting their first taste of this once-heated rivalry. Neither Javier Baez nor Jorge Soler has ever faced St. Louis and both of these players are major keys moving forward for Chicago. Soler, who is 4-for-8 in two games since being promoted, will look to stay hot, while Baez will look to build on his power outbursts that have too often been mired by strikeouts.
While the Cubs won’t see postseason play in 2014, barring a miraculous turn of events over the season’s final month, this is a prime opportunity for the team’s young talent to experience what a playoff battle feels like, as it looks to play spoiler for several of its division rivals. This will only help down the road, perhaps as early as next season, as Chicago moves toward becoming a legitimate contender in the National League Central.