St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina waits on deck during the eighth inning of the team's baseball game against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday, July 19, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina waits on deck during the eighth inning of the team's baseball game against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday, July 19, 2018, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The long-awaited extended weekend series between the Cardinals and Cubs at Wrigley Field is finally upon us, and it’s sure to be intense. The biggest Cardinals series since the 2015 NLDS against these same Cubs, the four-game set starting Thursday night has the capacity to turn the entire season on its head in one direction or the other.

Let’s break down the trends within the pitching match-ups, and predict where things might stand when the dust settles on this momentous clash of NL Central foes.

With a win Wednesday for the Cardinals and losses by both the Cubs and Brewers, St. Louis leads Chicago and Milwaukee by 3.0 games in the Central. The Brewers have one more with the Padres Thursday before hosting the lowly Pirates for three games over the weekend. The Charmin-soft schedule for the Brewers over the final stretch of the season could put them in an excellent position to take advantage of the Cardinals and Cubs beating up on each other for seven more games, but there’s really nothing either St. Louis or Chicago can do about that right now. A decisive win in this four-game series for either club would go a long way toward assuring a postseason berth for the winner, regardless of what the Brewers do in their games.

Win this weekend, and you’re in the driver’s seat. Lose, and you’ll be forced to care a lot more about what the Brewers--and several other teams--are up to on a daily basis. The Nationals (83-68) are 1.5 games clear of the Cubs and Brewers. At 82-70, the Cubs and Brewers are tied for the second wild card spot, and are 3.0 games clear of the Phillies (78-72), who could also become relevant to the Cardinals in wild card consideration if this weekend at Wrigley doesn’t go as planned.

A lot of balls in the air, definitely, but just beat the Cubs this weekend, and things get a lot less complicated.

After out-dueling Max Scherzer Wednesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, Adam Wainwright is the only Cardinals starter who won’t get a crack at the Cubs this weekend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Wainwright has been far more effective at home (2.08 ERA) than on the road (6.03 ERA) this season. The Cardinals will send out the rest of its rotation to battle the Chicago lineup over the next four days, beginning with their budding ace right out of the gate.

The Cardinals are coming out guns blazing by throwing Jack Flaherty in Game 1 on Thursday night, but the Cubs are doing the same, especially considering Kyle Hendricks’ success against St. Louis this season. While the Cardinals can lean on a pitcher who boasts a 1.07 ERA across his last 13 starts, the Cubs should be pretty comfortable countering with a starter who is 3-0 with a microscopic 0.39 ERA when facing St. Louis in 2019. 

Hendricks notably pitched an 81-pitch shutout of the Cardinals at Wrigley Field back in May, and he’s enjoyed a 1.75 ERA in the friendly confines this season. The Cardinals have had a tough time figuring him out, which makes you worry a little bit as a St. Louis fan that the Cardinals could possibly be wasting Flaherty’s outing by using him against Hendricks. High-risk, high-reward. Flaherty is coming off a rare start over his recent stretch of dominance in which he allowed three whole runs in a loss to Milwaukee (hey, it was still a quality start).

Game 1 could go down as a pitcher’s duel that requires some tense moments in the late innings to decide a winner. I’m bracing for an instant classic, one with the potential to swing the entire momentum of the series in one direction or the other.

Michael Wacha is the starter the Cardinals sort of reluctantly continued to include in their rotation after the team remained silent at the July 31 trade deadline. But in fairness to the 28-year-old Texan, Wacha has improved his performance considerably since then; after one more clunker in his first post-deadline start on August 5, Wacha has a 2.56 ERA across his last seven games. A workhorse, he is not, delivering just 31.2 innings in those seven starts (he was used as an 'opener' on short rest in one of those games), but Wacha has refused to surrender more than three runs in any game during this stretch.

Limiting the damage within a bad inning is critical to success at Wrigley, so hopefully Wacha can continue that trend on Friday. A passable outing of five-plus innings and three or so runs would force the Cardinals to lean on the bullpen a little more heavily than is comfortable in this stretch of 16 games in 16 days, but it would at least give St. Louis a chance to win.

An element that would improve those chances would be for the Cardinals offense to beat up on fill-in starter Alec Mills early. Mills was announced as the Friday starter after it was revealed that Cole Hamels is dealing with shoulder soreness. Hamels was scheduled for Game 3 Saturday, a start that will now belong to the original Friday starter Jose Quintana, according to media reports from Chicago. The 27-year-old Mills has thrown out of the Cubs bullpen recently, but made two starts earlier this season in which he totaled five earned runs allowed in 10.1 innings.

Where Thursday night feels more like a low-scoring grind until it gets turned over to the bullpens, Friday afternoon could be a game that sees relievers employed early on both sides, with plenty of runs to go around in a classic afternoon Wrigley tilt. Hope the wind isn’t blowing out.

Jose Quintana has held the Cardinals to four runs in 10 innings (3.60 ERA) in two starts this season, but his numbers on the year in day games this year have been rather generous (5.11 ERA), which leaves plenty of room for the Cardinals to take advantage of the veteran starter on Saturday. If the Cardinals can force Quintana into stressful innings early, they could corner Joe Maddon into needing to consider his bullpen pretty quickly, which could present danger for the Cubs if the Cardinals are able to able to prevent Mills from going too deep into Game 2 on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals should enter this game reasonably confident in their starter’s ability to give the bullpen a bit of a breather. Relying on his pitch-to-contact style, Dakota Hudson has successfully traversed at least six innings in each of his last seven starts, recording quality starts in six of them, including a seven-inning, two-run effort against the Nationals last weekend. Though welcoming fly-ball contact is a questionable strategy dependent upon the whims of the wind at Wrigley, Hudson is typically more reliant on ground ball outs given the sinking actions of his pitches. Though he might allow a home run or two in this one, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hudson turn in another six-inning outing that puts the Cardinals in position to win it late. It is notable, though, that Hudson has not faced the Cubs at all yet this season. Time to see what’s in Pandora’s box.

In the conclusion of what will surely feel like a marathon series by the time Sunday arrives, Miles Mikolas will seek his first win against the Cubs this season. He’s faced Chicago three times and has actually posted solid numbers (2.16 ERA in 16.2 innings) despite being held out of the win column, but his one rough outing of the three did come at Wrigley in a four-inning start. Though he hasn’t been nearly as sharp in 2019 as he was in his first season with the Cardinals a year ago, Mikolas has managed to avoid the truly gnarly crooked numbers so far in September. In general, Mikolas has struggled on the road this year (5.80 ERA) which has me bracing for a letdown from him on Sunday. It sort of feels like a situation where if the Cardinals enter Sunday having lost multiple games already on the weekend, it might be a tough ask for Mikolas to lead them to a series split.

Mikolas will be opposed by Yu Darvish, who has flashed some wipeout stuff recently. In his start on Tuesday, Darvish gave up four runs to the Reds despite posting 13 strikeouts; in the start before that one, he was spotless while striking out a whopping 14 batters in six innings. The Cardinals have been known to strike out in bunches on occasion, and given the way Darvish is locking in on his swing-and-miss stuff lately, another double-digit strikeout affair could be on tap for his outing Sunday. If the Cardinals can’t figure out how to square up Darvish early, Game 4 could take on a deflating tone.

Series prediction: The saying goes that momentum is only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher, but the match-ups throughout this series on the pitching side feel pretty even. It’s hard to envision that a potentially emotional outcome on national television Thursday night wouldn’t have at least some carryover to the rest of what is sure to be a raucous weekend on the North Side. Thursday’s going to be about the pitchers, Flaherty and Hendricks, but I could see a relative stalemate between the two ultimately coming down to which bullpen can lock it down late. I like the opportunity for the Cardinals bats to come to life in the middle two games of the series against Cubs pitching, so if Flaherty can work his magic in Game 1, I’m expecting a profitable weekend at Wrigley with the Cardinals taking 3 of 4. Should Hendricks deal like an ace better than the Cardinals’ Jack, the Cardinals would be immensely fortunate to leave Wrigley with a split; a loss Thursday, and I predict the Cardinals to drop 3 of 4 in the series.

Momentum can be overstated at times, but with so much on the line this weekend for a Cardinals team that hasn’t been to October since 2015, it’s crucial to put their best foot forward out of the gate on Thursday.

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