After 123 years and 2,361 regular season games, the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals are set to meet in their first-ever postseason series.
That fact alone probably makes this series the marquee matchup of the opening round. However, we also must take into account that both of these teams entered the postseason with better records than anyone else still playing. That’s because the NL Central absolutely dominated the competition this season with St. Louis (100 wins), the now-eliminated Pittsburgh Pirates (98) and Chicago (97) finishing with the three highest win totals in MLB.
That may lead to changes in the postseason seeding down the road. For this season, only one can reach the NLCS, and that should only add to the intensity of the series. The Cardinals enter as the top dog with the best record, the most postseason experience and the championship pedigree, but there’s a hunger in this Cubs team that will be difficult to deny.
Forget the Cubs 108-year World Series championship drought. That does not reflect on the 2015 team in any way. They are ready to make and rewrite history, and the Cardinals may just be their next victim.
We can’t wait for this one.
Game 1: Friday in St. Louis, 6:37 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 2: Saturday in St. Louis, 5:37 p.m. ET (TBS)
Game 3: Monday in Chicago, Time TBA (TBS)
Game 4*: Tuesday in Chicago, Time TBA (TBS)
Game 5*: Thursday in St. Louis, Time TBA (TBS)
* if necessary
The Cardinals won the season series 11-8, taking seven of their 10 meetings at Busch Stadium while dropping five of nine meetings in Chicago. Worth noting, the Cubs did take four of six meetings in September.
Game 1: Jon Lester (11-12, 3.04) vs. John Lackey (13-10, 2.77)
Game 2: Kyle Hendricks (8-7, 3.95) vs. Jaime Garcia (10-6, 2.43)
Game 3: Michael Wacha (17-7, 3.38) vs. Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77)
Game 4: TBD vs. TBD
Game 5: TBD vs. TBD
Even with Adam Wainwright limited to bullpen duties coming off his Achilles injury and even with key starter Carlos Martinez lost for the season, St. Louis can still offer a strong rotation. John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia are all postseason tested and are all coming off solid regular seasons. You’d never confuse them with Clayton Kershaw or David Price, of course, but each is capable of a dominant performance. They give manager Mike Matheny a high floor for expectations based on recent production and consistency.
As for the Cubs, with Jake Arrieta pitching the wild-card game, he won’t be available in St. Louis. They’ll have to count on prized free-agent signing Jon Lester to assume the ace role in his starts. Beyond Arrieta and Lester, Joe Maddon doesn’t have an arm he can truly rely on.
THREE KEYS FOR THE CARDINALS
Health: The Cardinals won 100 games through sheer resilience. At one point or another, stars like Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams and Randall Grichuk all missed significant time. Now they enter the postseason with Yadier Molina far less than 100 percent and Martinez lost for the season. They’ve shown the ability to overcome in the past, but there’s less margin for error now. They’ll need those who are healthy to continue stepping up, and those banged up to stay on the field.
Get All-Star closer Trevor Rosenthal on track: Trevor Rosenthal finished his All-Star campaign with 48 saves, but didn’t exactly charge to the finish line. Rosenthal allowed six earned runs in eight September appearances, finishing the month with a 6.48 ERA. Of greater concern, he allowed only three home runs all season, but two of those came in his final three appearances. This series figures to be tightly contested, so he’ll need to be in All-Star form.
Protect the home field: St. Louis did it better than just almost everyone, finishing with 55 home wins this season. That tied the Dodgers for the best mark in MLB. They also had a strong road record at 45-36, but they’re facing a Cubs team that won 48 on the road, more than any other team. Home field doesn’t tend to matter as much in baseball, but there’s still a big boost when you can get those home wins under your belt.
THREE KEYS FOR THE CUBS.
The third starter: As noted, the Cubs don’t have a truly reliable arm after Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Jason Hammel looked like that guy earlier in the season. Kyle Hendricks pitched well enough to earn the role in September, but there’s not enough consistency there to feel confident. If Arrieta or Lester slip up, they’ll really need that third guy.
Stay hot, Kyle Schwarber: Rookie slugger Kyle Schwarber may be the difference maker in this series. Schwarber is a pure hitter who never seems to be over matched or lost at the plate. When you mix that with his immense power, there’s a chance for damage to be done every time he swings the bat. If the Cardinals can’t get him out, or can’t keep guys off base ahead of him, they’re in trouble.
Don’t think, just play: The Cubs players already know about the franchise’s history, but they’ll keep hearing about it as long as they’re alive. If they just keep ignoring it and playing their game, they’ll be fine. This Cubs team is every bit as good as their 97 wins suggest, and may well be the toughest NL team to take out.
FIVE KEY NUMBERS
• 1.25: John Lackey’s ERA is three starts against Chicago this season. In 21.2 innings, he did not allow a home run.
• 24.5: The Cubs strikeout rate. That figure is the highest in the league. The other wild-card team, the Houston Astros, are next closest on that list. They’ve struck out 22.9 percent of their plate appearances.
• 56: The total number of home runs the Cubs have received from stud rookies Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell, including Schwarber’s game-changing bomb in the wild-card game.
• .879: Kolten Wong career postseason OPS. When the bright lights are on, Wong shines brightest.
• 53: The number of Cardinals postseason victories in between the Cubs last two postseason wins. They start clean on Friday. First to three wins.
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