For many years, the Chicago Cubs had to look up to find their rival St. Louis Cardinals in the standings.
Times have changed.
Chicago (94-66) has a chance to secure its fourth consecutive National League Central title against the Cardinals during the final weekend of the regular season at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ magic number is two to clinch the division over the second-place Milwaukee Brewers, who are hosting the Detroit Tigers this weekend.
“Our destiny is in our hands,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant told the Chicago Tribune. “If we (pick each other up), we’re going to be in a good spot.”
Meanwhile, St. Louis (87-73) is in a much more difficult spot with two games to go.
The Cardinals emerged as a legitimate playoff contender after replacing ex-manager Mike Matheny with Mike Shildt, who has led the team to a 40-27 record since taking over just before the All-Star break. But a late-season stumble has pushed St. Louis to the outside looking in when it comes to the wild card.
“Clearly, the back is completely against the wall,” Shildt said to reporters after an 8-4 loss in Friday’s series opener.
The Cardinals’ task will not get any easier as they go up against Cubs left-hander Cole Hamels on Saturday afternoon.
The 34-year-old Hamels is 4-2 with a 2.47 ERA with Chicago and 9-11 with a 3.87 ERA including his time with the Texas Rangers earlier this season. Hamels has allowed two earned runs or fewer in nine of 11 starts with the Cubs.
In 13 career starts against the Cardinals, Hamels is 4-4 with a 2.79 ERA. He has struck out 87 batters in 84 innings.
St. Louis will send out right-hander Miles Mikolas (17-4, 2.94 ERA), who has taken over the role of ace and earned a selection to the All-Star Game this summer. The 30-year-old is 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA in his last three outings.
Mikolas is 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA in five games (three starts) against the Cubs during his career. He is the Cardinals’ first pitcher to win 17 or more games in his first season with the club since the late Darryl Kile won 19 games in 2000.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is trying to lead the team to its fourth straight appearance in the NL Championship Series and its second World Series title in the past three years.
“It’s a very alert time of the year,” Maddon said. “You’re always on alert. You don’t really let your guard down, ever. …
“It’s always good to be able to hold a lead. But when you get to this time a year against really good teams like St. Louis and whomever else we’re going to play, you have this heightened state of alert about your mind and your observations and trying to piece things together. I’d rather you get more mentally alert as opposed to trying to do more physically.”
The Cubs are 50-29 at home. The Cardinals are 44-35 on the road.
St. Louis holds a 9-8 edge in the regular-season series. Both teams have scored 89 runs against one another.