The Cubs/Cardinals rivalry is always viewed with utmost importance, but the 4-game weekend series opening at Wrigley Thursday afternoon does mark the first pivotal series for the Cubs and not coincidentally the National League Central this season.
Before we get started, let's keep in mind that fans of Major League Baseball who take the first couple of weeks seriously are counting on this series. With the Marlins, Padres, Mariners, Tigers and Bluejays all atop their respective divisions, the NL Central has the only ounce of sanity left for pre-season prognosticators. All eyes are here this weekend.
The red-hot Redbirds come to town with a 7-3 record, but they've played in 10 straight since Opening Day. Adding another 4 games against their biggest rival before getting a break will surely not help any fatigue, including the layover from their recent trip to Arizona. The Cubs have to capitalize on this, especially at home, especially against the only other team off to a good start in the division.
Foremost, remember that this is not a new-look Cardinals team. Remaining in contention until August, Cardinals management rewarded their team by doing absolutely nothing but signing former Padre Khalil Greene to play shortstop. Makes sense right? ... As a result, they still rely on out-slugging opponents (courtesy Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick) and trying to keep the rotation healthy. With former ace Chris Carpenter injuring himself yet again, things could become more of the same. This is also still a team that expects to lose a number of games at the hands of its relief pitching and its "closer-by-committee." I think as long as you can throw a baseball in that bullpen you're eligible to close for Tony La Russa this season.
If the Cubs' rotation can keep every game at least close, they will likely win this series. With home-field advantage and two more days of rest, there's no reason the odds aren't in their favor. Let's take a look at the match-ups:
Thursday: Sean Marshall vs. Adam Wainwright. Marshall makes his debut as the fifth starter against the Cardinals' ace. It will be one of the harder games of the series for the Cubs to win. Wainwright hasn't been dominant in his two starts this season (he's only gone 5 innings each time), but he's kept runners from scoring. Provided he stays true to form, the Cubs will need a similar effort from Marshall and hope to take the game in relief.
Friday: Carlos Zambrano vs. Kyle Lohse. The most thrilling match-up of the series pits the Cubs' ace in his home debut against Lohse, who retired 24 batters in a row versus Houston last weekend. Last year, the Cubs handled Lohse quite well. He had a 6.38 ERA in 3 starts against them. Zambrano, however, was even worse, posting a 12.75 ERA in the same number of starts. If both pitchers bring their best game, it'll be a late-inning showdown, but otherwise this could be a long one.
Saturday: Ryan Dempster vs. Todd Wellemeyer. Former Cub Wellemeyer is the Cardinals' wild card. He impressed his last time out but was lit by the Pirates in his season debut. Dempster comes off a win in Milwaukee to make his home debut where he was incredible throughout most of last season. This is the Cubs' easiest draw of the series depending on...
Sunday: Ted Lilly vs. ???. With Carpenter injured yet again, his replacement has yet to be named. Fifth starter Joel Piniero will likely be unavailable with no rest, so La Russa will have to experiment. Lilly comes off a great outing Monday and should be plenty ready to go for series closer.
Keys to the series: For the Cubs, getting the offense that sputtered against the Rockies back on track is first order of business. Aramis Ramirez needs to get back in the line-up badly. For the Cardinals, aside from hoping their bullpen steps up, they will need their starters to stay strong despite the lack of rest.
Looking at the scenario of this the first of many meetings between these rivals, this is a bigger series for the Cardinals. For them to play 14 straight and win a majority of their last four games would be huge and establish them as legitimate contenders.