With NL Central crown in sight, Cubs face Cardinals in crucial series

Chicago can lock up its first division title since 2008 and deal a big blow to its archrival's postseason hopes when the two teams meet up for a three-game set in St. Louis starting tonight.
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With three losses in their last five games, the Cubs haven't officially clinched the National League Central yet, but they've left themselves with a tantalizing prospect: They can wrap up their first division title since 2008 on the home field of their top rivals. With their magic number at five, a sweep of the Cardinals in their three-game series at Busch Stadium starting on Monday night would get the job done and also deal St. Louis' postseason hopes a critical blow.

Not that a sweep—or even a series victory—will be an easy task for the Cubs (91–51), and not just because the Cardinals (75–67) have plenty on the line themselves, as they're now half a game out of the second wild-card spot thanks to the Mets' latest surge. St. Louis has won seven of its 13 games against Chicago this season, making the Redbirds one of just three teams—the Mets (5–2) and Rockies (4–2) are the others—to hold an edge on the North Siders in this year’s season series. While the Cubs took two out of three in St. Louis both from April 18 to 20 and May 23 to 25, they were swept at Wrigley Field by the Cardinals (June 20–22) and then split a four-game series there (Aug. 12–15) as well. Even so, the Cubs have outscored the Cardinals in the series, 66–54, thanks to a couple of big blowouts, including a 13–2 win on Aug. 12 that saw them tee off on Adam Wainwright.

Wainwright, who has pitched to a career-worst 4.45 ERA this season, isn't lined up to pitch in this series, and neither is rookie Luke Weaver, whose 3.48 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine in six starts outpace the rest of the rotation, which ranks just seventh in the NL in ERA (4.25) and 10th in strikeout rate (7.4 per nine). The best news for the Cardinals is that rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz, who missed nearly six weeks with a hairline fracture of his right thumb, is back in the fold; he came off the disabled list on Sunday. Taking advantage of the absence of Jhonny Peralta during the first half, the 26-year-old Cuban defector emerged as the team’s second-most productive hitter behind Matt Carpenter, posting a 137 OPS+ on .312/.376/.518 hitting, with 14 home runs.

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One other Cardinal to keep an eye on is Randal Grichuk, whose overall numbers (.239/.289/493) aren’t so impressive but who's hitting .295/.315/.695 since returning from a Triple A refresher course on Aug. 11, as well as .333/.353/.788 with four homers in 34 plate appearances against the Cubs this year. On Chicago's side, Addison Russell—who has hit .267/.333/.517 since Aug. 1 and .318/.367/.477 in 47 PA against the Cardinals—is worth noting, but the Cardinals have held Kris Bryant (.278/.339/.426 in 59 PA) and Anthony Rizzo (.277/.375/.447 in 56 PA) largely in check this year, and they’ve smothered former teammate Jason Heyward (.149/.200/.191 in 50 PA).

Here’s a quick look at the pitching matchups for the three games, along with a few other notes.

Monday, Sept. 12
Kyle Hendricks (14–7, 2.07 ERA) vs. Mike Leake (9–9, 4.61 ERA)

One of the most surprising things about the 2016 Cubs is that Hendricks has outpitched reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. In fact, the 26-year-old righty owns the league’s lowest ERA and highest ERA+ (193) thanks to a tear in which he’s posted a 1.26 ERA dating back to June 19, allowing two or fewer runs in 12 of 14 starts; his June 24 outing against the Marlins (four runs, all unearned) and July 26 against the White Sox (three earned runs) are the lone exceptions. Hendricks’s 3.36 FIP exactly matches last year’s, and his peripherals (0.8 homers per nine, 2.2 walks per nine, 7.9 strikeouts per nine) are nearly identical. But he’s gotten exceptional defensive support, with a .247 batting average on balls in play (down from .300 last year) thanks to significantly more soft contact (25.7% of balls in play this year, up from 18.7% last year).

Leake, whom the Cardinals signed to a five-year, $80 million deal this past winter, is making his second start since returning from a bout of shingles; he didn’t make it out of the fifth inning in his Sept. 7 return against the Pirates. He’s been something of a disappointment, via career-worst marks in ERA and ERA+ (89). That said, his 3.83 FIP is actually a career best, and his 1.4 walks per nine is the league’s low. He’s been burned by a .319 BABIP, up 56 points from last year, and over his 15 starts since June 7, he’s at .368 en route to a 5.22 ERA.

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Tuesday, Sept. 13
Jason Hammel (14–8, 3.50 ERA) vs. Jaime Garcia (10–12, 4.58 ERA)

Whereas Hendricks is on a roll, Hammel is in the midst of a slide, having allowed 23 runs (18 earned) and five homers in 17 1/3 innings over his last four starts. His ERA is respectable, but his 4.37 FIP and 1.2 homers per nine less so, particularly with his strikeout-to-walk ratio having fallen off from last year’s tidy 4.3 to this year’s 2.6. While he’s pitched well in two of his three outings against the Cardinals this year, St. Louis’ .456 slugging percentage against righties (second-best in the league) and his own vulnerability against lefties (.459 slugging percentage allowed) could make for a volatile combination given the power of lefty sluggers Matt Adams, Carpenter and Brandon Moss.

Garcia, a rotation savior last year, has been a weak link lately, with an 8.06 ERA over his last five starts. Overall, his home run rate has nearly tripled (from 0.4 per nine to 1.2) from 2015, and he owns by far the rotation’s lowest quality start rate (36%). The Cubs have hit lefties hard this year; their .805 OPS (on .265/.355/.450 hitting) is the league’s second-highest. That said, Garcia allowed just two runs in each of his two starts against Chicago, on April 19 and June 20.

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Wednesday, Sept. 14
Jon Lester (16–4, 2.51 ERA) vs Carlos Martinez (14–7, 3.05 ERA)

The series’ best matchup—and what could be the clincher—comes during a day game with a local start time of 12:45 p.m. Lester has been just about everything the Cubs hoped for when they signed him to that six-year, $155 million deal in December 2014, and he’s been on a roll lately, with a 1.65 ERA and 2.88 FIP in the second half. He hasn’t allowed more than two runs in any of his last eight starts; in that span, he’s got a 1.17 ERA and has held opponents to a .191/.236/.271 line. His only start of the year against the Cardinals came within that run, on Aug. 11, when he held them to two runs in six innings, struck out six and and yielded a solo homer to Moss—one of just three homers he’s allowed to lefties this season.

With an ERA near 3.00 for the second straight season, Martinez has emerged as the Cardinals’ ace. While his 3.65 FIP is actually 0.44 runs per nine above last season and 0.01 higher than Wainwright, his 67% quality start rate is by far the staff’s best. He’s been one of the majors’ most effective starting pitchers against righties, holding them to a .204/.267/.248 line—the lowest slugging percentage and second-lowest OPS of any pitcher to face at least 300 righthanded hitters.