The Cubs won’t put any Cactus League lineups out there against the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend or script out every inning at Wrigley Field for their bullpen.
The Cubs will still have something to play for on Friday — the National League’s No. 1 seed — plus the adrenaline rush from 40,000 fans, the national-TV spotlight on Saturday afternoon (Fox) and Sunday night (ESPN) and the chance to help block their biggest rival from making the postseason.
“It has that kind of potential,” manager Joe Maddon admitted. “But from my perspective, it’s our responsibility to play those games straight up.”
Even with Wednesday afternoon’s ugly 11-1 loss at Coors Field, the Cardinals have so far survived the first two legs of what could be a make-or-break road trip, splitting four games against the San Francisco Giants and taking a series from the Colorado Rockies.
That left the Cardinals (80-72) tied with the New York Mets (80-72) in the second wild-card position, with the Giants a half-game up heading into Wednesday night’s game at Dodger Stadium and what should be a head-spinning finish to this three-team race.
“We haven’t let up at all,” said Jon Lester (18-4, 2.36 ERA), who will start opposite Carlos Martinez (15-8, 3.16 ERA) on “Sunday Night Baseball.” “I feel like every team has something to play for when they play us.
“Every team is trying to be little thorns in our side, make us work and make us grind for our wins. It’s always interesting when you add the Cardinals into the mix. They’re playing for their wild-card spot and a chance to get to the postseason, so I’m sure they’ll definitely bring their A-game.”
The Cubs will use next week to experiment with their late-inning formulas — Tuesday will be Bullpen Night at PNC Park — and rotate their position players against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds with the idea of keeping them fresh for October.
“With all respect to everybody, you got to play these next three games right,” Maddon said. “Not that I don’t trust our other guys, but industry-wide you just want to be able to do that. Plus, we have a day off (on Thursday that) permits us to feel better about the guys getting that rest.
“I’ve been on both sides of it. When you’re on that other side, you definitely want to make sure that the teams that are in contention are playing against the other teams’ (perceived) best.”
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If the Cardinals can survive and advance without feeling the burnout, they could become a dangerous opponent in a best-of-five series.
St. Louis has a powerful lineup, setting an NL record with eight players with at least 15 home runs this season. Seung Hwan Oh (18 saves, 1.79 ERA) is the kind of lights-out closer the Giants desperately need.
Alex Reyes — Baseball America’s No. 7 overall prospect entering this season — is an X-factor. On Saturday, the Cubs will get another look at Reyes, who beat them last week at Busch Stadium by throwing 4 1/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen, giving up one hit and six walks, flashing his age-22 unpredictability.
“You can’t sleep on the Cardinals,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “You know they’re a good team. They got a lot of history in the playoffs.”
The Cardinals still have their issues. Adam Wainwright (12-9, 4.57 ERA) hasn’t pitched like an ace, and Mike Leake (9-10, 4.54 ERA) hasn’t lived up to his five-year, $80 million contract. Matt Holliday hasn’t played since Aug. 11, when Cubs lefty Mike Montgomery broke his right thumb with a 94-mph fastball. A franchise known for its fundamentals now ranks 25th in the majors in defensive efficiency.
But St. Louis has already split 16 games with the Cubs and would be playing with house money against the best team in baseball in October.
“To be honest, I haven’t (been paying attention to the wild-card standings),” Lester said. “We have a lot going on here. I try to stay in our own little corner, our own little world. Especially with where we’re at, we don’t have anybody at our heels or anything.
“The biggest thing for us is kind of focusing on us. Whoever our opponent is come first round, we’ll be ready to go and prepared. If it is the Cardinals, great, we’ve seen them a lot. We know what they have. If it’s somebody else, we’ll study and we’ll prepare.”
The Cubs could help shove the Cardinals into a long offseason — or give new life to a playoff-tested team that won’t be intimidated by the idea of coming back into Wrigleyville.
“The intensity will be there,” MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. “Any time we play them, it’s a fun series. We get a lot of the Cardinals fans down here. We want to play everybody tough. Certainly, they’re in a playoff hunt, too, so we’re going to do our best to do what we do — go out there and try to win every game.”