The Chicago Cubs may not have enough time to catch the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, but they're proving they could be a problem for baseball's best team should they meet in the playoffs.
Jon Lester looks to lead Chicago to its first sweep of St. Louis in five years Sunday.
Chicago (87-61) has won six of the last eight meetings after 8-3 and 5-4 wins to begin this three-game set. A victory Sunday would give the Cubs their first sweep of at least three games against the Cardinals since Sept. 13-15, 2010, and first at Wrigley Field since taking four straight July 27-30, 2006.
Sunday's meeting is their last of the regular season, but a postseason series could be looming. The Cubs trail the Cardinals by five games but appear to be safe for a wild-card berth and could overtake Pittsburgh by the end of the weekend.
Should Chicago win a potential wild-card game against the Pirates, it would likely set up an NL division series against the Cardinals (92-56), who own the majors' best record and became the first team to clinch a postseason berth Saturday despite losing.
Lester (10-10, 3.38 ERA) appears to be finding his playoff form, putting together his first complete game as a Cub his last time out. He struck out nine while limiting Pittsburgh to five hits in a 2-1 road victory Tuesday. The left-hander is 6-2 in 11 starts since the All-Star break, including 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA in three this month.
"This is what he does," manager Joe Maddon said. "He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It's not a surprise."
Lester, who has never gone the distance in two straight outings, is 1-2 with a 1.93 ERA in five career starts against St. Louis with all but one coming this year. He went seven innings in each of the last three, giving up a combined four hits in the last two.
Jason Heyward has hit .429 with four doubles and a homer in 21 at-bats against Lester.
The Cardinals had been hitting .122 against left-handers since Sept. 6 before going 6 for 16 on Saturday.
St. Louis' Carlos Martinez (13-7, 3.02) snapped his recent slump Tuesday, yielding one run and four hits while striking out nine over eight innings in a 3-1, 10-inning victory at Milwaukee. He had posted a 5.60 ERA over his previous five starts.
"Best I've ever seen him throw," manager Mike Matheny told MLB's official website. "That was no-hit stuff."
He's 1-0 in four games against the Cubs this year despite a 6.32 ERA, largely inflated from the seven runs he gave up over 3 2-3 innings in the Cardinals' 10-9 victory May 4.
Starlin Castro is batting .386 over his last 22 games and 5 for 7 in this series, but he's 1 for 11 with five strikeouts against Martinez.
Maddon was ejected in the ninth inning Saturday along with reliever Hector Rondon after his pitch hit Greg Garcia, who was the third Cardinal to be struck on the day. A night earlier, Maddon called the Cardinals a "vigilante group" after Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch from Tyler Lyons, which may have been retaliation for Matt Holliday being hit in the head earlier.
After Garcia was hit, Matt Carpenter went deep before Tommy Pham and Heyward singled, but Pedro Strop came on to get the final three outs.
"It was a very intense game," said Carpenter, 8 for 17 with three homers in the last four games. "But you know what? Every game from here on out is going be an intense game."
Holliday, who returned Friday after missing 41 games with a quad strain, didn't play but was available off the bench and should hold the same status Sunday. He's 5 for 9 off Lester.