Chicago Cubs: Arch rivals standing in way of NL Central crown

Chicago Cubs (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Chicago Cubs (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs head into the final weekend of the regular season with everything on the line.

A couple of weeks ago, I painted a potential nightmare scenario for the Chicago Cubs heading into the home stretch of the regular season. At the time, the Cubs were stumbling and looked like a team who had lost their way against the Cincinnati Reds. While they took two of the three games in the series, they only scored a total of five runs. So the wins had more to do with the Reds’ futility than the Cubs’ performance.

Remaining on the schedule were two series against the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals respectively. The initial nightmare scenario I painted involved a stumble against the White Sox to head into the final series of the season against a desperate Cardinals team. As it played out, that stumble came against the Pittsburgh Pirates instead. In any event, the stage for the final weekend has been set and the National League Central will be decided over the next three games.

The Cubs are only one game ahead of the surging Milwaukee Brewers who play the Detroit Tigers — a team with nothing to play for — while the Cardinals are only one game out of the last Wild Card spot. Needless to say, they will both have a lot to play for.

If the Cubs aren’t able to win the Central, it could set up a date with the Los Angeles Dodgers or Colorado Rockies for a one-game playoff. For a team that has held the National League’s best record for much of the season, it would be a tough pill to swallow to have it come down to that. With that in mind, we take a look at the matchups that will decide the Cubs’ fate.

On the Bump

Friday, September 28 at 2:20 PM EST (Adam Wainwright vs Kyle Hendricks)

The Series kicks off Friday afternoon with Adam Wainwright (2-3) and Kyle Hendricks (13-11) taking the mound for the Cardinals and Cubs respectively. Wainwright has spent most of the season on the DL with elbow inflammation and just recently returned to the rotation. However, there likely isn’t anyone the Cardinals would rather have on the bump to open this series than a gamer like Wainwright. Moreover, he’s looked fairly effective over his last two starts.

While the Cubs would certainly prefer to have Jon Lester start this game, they will be without him the entire series, as he just pitched a gem on Thursday. Therefore, Joe Maddon will hand the ball to Kyle Hendricks to set the tone. Hendricks is no stranger to pressure-packed situations, performing brilliantly in the 2016 postseason. While the record is mediocre, he sports a very respectable 3.49 ERA this season.

Saturday, September 29 at 1:05 PM EST (Miles Mikolas vs Cole Hamels)

Saturday’s tilt also gets off to an early start and features the best pitching matchup of the series. Cole Hamels (9-11) has been lights out since his trade deadline acquisition from the Texas Rangers. To say this is why the Cubs acquired him is a gross understatement. Hamels will have to step up and lock down the win for the North Siders.

This will be much easier said than done for Hamels as he’ll face one of the most surprising stories in Major League Baseball this season in Mile Mikolas. The career 21-10 right-hander hadn’t pitched in the Majors since 2014 prior to this season. He did, however, spend the past three season pitching in Japan for the Yomiuri Giants.

The surprise story is a whopping 17-4 this year with a 2.94 ERA. How he’ll handle the pressure cooker that is Wrigley Field during a Cubs vs. Cardinals game with the division on the line is another story.

Sunday, September 30 at 3:20 PM EST (Jack Flaherty vs Mike Montgomery)

The series finale is also a day game and one in which the Cubs hope is meaningless. Depending on how the first two games go, and what the Brewers do, this game might be irrelevant. Alternatively, everything could come down to Jack Flaherty (8-8) against Mike Montgomery (5-6).

Montgomery has performed beyond expectations for the Cubs seems to have a knack for giving the team just what it needs when he takes the ball.  However, I can’t imagine Cubs fans would choose to have him take the mound in such a critical game. But such is the game of baseball — 162 games and it all comes down to the final one.

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You could also say the same about the Cardinals’ starter, Jack Flaherty. The right-hander is short on experience with only 33 career games but has a fairly good 3.16 ERA this season.  It is distinctly possible, with these two pitchers on the mound, this game could turn into a slugfest. However, with the Cubs’ offensive woes lately, fans shouldn’t like their chances if that happens. In any event, this is going to be an incredibly exciting weekend for baseball in Chicago. Let the fun begin.