St. Louis Cardinals: What to watch for this weekend in Chicago

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 4: Carlos Martinez #18 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on September 4, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 4: Carlos Martinez #18 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on September 4, 2017 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals arrive in Chicago for a three-game set with all the attention set firmly on the playoff race.

After yesterday’s win over the Cincinnati Reds, the St. Louis Cardinals come into the Windy City just three games back of the Chicago Cubs. With the Colorado Rockies’ loss last night, the Cardinals also find themselves just 2.5 games back in the NL Wild Card. Don’t count the Brewers out either. They have the same record as the Cardinals.

Just to remind everyone, I said the St. Louis Cardinals would go 15-7 over the last twenty-two games to get into the playoffs. If you’re counting at home, through the first six games the Cardinals are 5-1 with sixteen games remaining. That means the Cardinals must go 10-6 for me to reach my goal. However, this weekend is the biggest test the team will face the rest of this year.

Ideally, the Cardinals come into Chicago with a six-game win streak, sweeping both the Pirates and Reds. Wednesday’s loss to the Reds certainly was a gut-check for the Redbirds, but I think the team should still feel really good about their chances this weekend.

If the Cardinals want to continue their playoff push, there is no question they must take two of three from the Cubs. Of course, we want to the Cardinals sweep, but they need to take this weekend series one game at a time. Control what you can control, and the wins will be there. They have shown an ability to win in Wrigley, but these games have a high importance. Personally, if Milwaukee can sweep at Wrigley, so can the Cardinals.

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Easier said than done, though, right?

There is no question a lot will need to go right for the St. Louis Cardinals. Here is one thing I am watching for this weekend that will determine the outcome of this series.

The starting pitching has been a strength for the Cardinals over the last two weeks or so. It has led the team’s resurgence in the standings, and has them on the brink of playoff spot.

If the St. Louis Cardinals are to succeed this weekend, it starts with Carlos Martinez versus John Lackey.

Martinez must set the tone for the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend. Over his last two starts, Martinez pitched sixteen innings, only giving up two earned runs and striking out eighteen batters. One of those starts was his second complete-game shutout of the season. If he pitches at this level against the Cubs, then the Cubs will be hard-pressed for runs all day.

However, if there are any concerns with Martinez, it’s his inability sometimes to escape trouble in the first inning. If that Carlos Martinez shows up, he better be ready to work hard the rest of the day to get through the Cubs’ lineup. He must keep the walks down against the Cubs. He gave out five walks over the last two games.

While it’s not many walks, considering the amount of innings pitched, you can’t expect not to be scored on with a team like the Cubs.

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The St. Louis Cardinals will then turn to Michael Wacha against Kyle Hendricks. If there ever was a time to continue hot pitching in Wacha’s career, this would be the time. Over his last two starts, Wacha pitched fourteen innings, only allowing three earned runs and striking out thirteen batters. Wacha was close to his second complete-game shutout last weekend as well, but was pulled in the eighth inning.

For all the Wacha nay-sayers, including me, Wacha has done a remarkable job of staying healthy. He has also shown there is still much more in the tank than many of us thought. Sure, his 3.99 ERA isn’t the greatest, but he has been a much better pitcher from what have seen from him recently.

If there was any concern over Wacha, it’s his inconsistency at times. While Wacha has gone through some great stretches of pitching, he has also had his rough moments. Not too long ago, Wacha was in the middle of a horrible month of June and a not so pleasant August. If he is to succeed this weekend, it will be keep the game close.

His last start against the Cubs resulted in a loss where he gave up five earned runs. As I said, continue the hot pitching and good things will happen.

Lastly, the St. Louis Cardinals will turn to Lance Lynn on Sunday to face Jose Quintana. While the games is not scheduled for Sunday night baseball, the game will be broadcast nationally on TBS. This match-up is the best pitching matchup of the series by far. Both pitchers have the stuff to get through 7+ innings with no runs given up.

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However, the biggest difference between the two is who is the hotter pitcher. Lynn has arguably been the Cardinals best pitcher this season. He has not given up more than four earned runs since June 24th, boasting a 2.23 ERA since then.

Since being traded for, Quintana boasts a 3.88 ERA in eleven games started for the Chicago Cubs. In August alone, Quintana’s ERA was 5.73, perhaps contributing to the Cubs’ slight collapse. In two starts in September, however, has seen better days, pitching to the tune of thirteen innings pitched while giving up two earned runs.

While the match-up is difficult to call, Lynn will to stay away from big innings. I know it sounds cliché, but we’ve seen time and time again the third and fifth innings be of detriment to the Cardinals’ right-hander. If he avoids those big innings, then he will be fine. The home run has been a problem for Lynn as well. Keep the ball in the park at all costs, especially at Wrigley.

How will the series play out?

I’ve said it for the last week or so, but I believe the Cardinals are the hottest team in the NL Central right now. Throw aside the loss to the Reds on Wednesday and try to convince me otherwise. The offense and pitching, by starters and bullpen, has been absolutely fire. The real test though, is now.

Over the last couple of weeks, the Cardinals have benefited from an easy schedule. The Cubs had a slightly harder schedule of play, barely, but still find themselves ahead of the Cardinals in the standings. While the teams play four more time after this weekend, the result could be either catastrophic or jubilant for the Cardinals.

A series loss, especially a sweep, makes the climb that much harder. It also puts pressure on the team to sweep the Cubs at home in those four games. Could that happen? Yes is could, but not likely. A series loss is a crushing blow to the playoff hopes, especially if the Rockies and Brewers distance themselves in the NL Wild Card standings.

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HOWEVER, a series win, and hopefully a sweep, will move the Cardinals within two games or a virtual tie for first place in the NL Central with just thirteen games to go. You’d have to think, if the Cardinals were able to pull off a series win or sweep, all the momentum would be on the Cardinals’ side. That momentum would be crucial for this team, especially finishing the road trip in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh next week.

I think the St. Louis Cardinals will take two of three here in Chicago. I’m banking on the momentum of the team, especially the starting pitching. The Cards will win games one and two of this series, falling shortly in game three  against Quintana.

That will bring the Cardinals to 79-70, just two games back of the Cubs. Then consider the Cubs have eight straight games against the Brewers and Cards starting next Thursday.

You want meaningful baseball in September? Buckle your seatbelts.

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As I said earlier, the Cardinals will need a lot to go right this weekend. Look no further than the starting pitching though. I think the offense will be there, but it won’t matter if our starters can’t control the game.