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Stress-test series to start the second half for hot Cubs, regrouping Cardinals

Yadi Molina and the regrouping Cardinals are praying for a jump start to their season against the Cubs -- who try to bury the Cards in the standings the next four days.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny got the boot from his bosses last week.

Now it’s the Cubs’ turn to take their shot at giving the rest of the Cardinals the same treatment.

The division rivals open the post-All-Star-break schedule before anybody else in baseball when an embattled Cardinals team still licking first-half wounds visits Wrigley Field on Thursday night to begin a four-day, five-game series. It includes a day-night doubleheader Saturday, the result of a rainout in April.

“I don’t want to say it’s a big series, but it’s an important series,” Cubs ace Jon Lester said of the disproportionate impact on the division with barely two months left in the season and with the third-place Cardinals trailing the first-place Cubs by 7½ games.

“I think we come out and we play well and we take a couple of those games, that could be a big tone-setter for us and could ultimately kind of change how they’re going to approach the season, as well.”

Lester emphasized focusing on his own team, but with eight meetings scheduled in the next 11 days, the Cubs not only have the chance to bury the Cards in the standings but also to quickly dampen any mood their regrouping rivals might have for adding help before the trade deadline July 31.

The wild-card factor is how the Cardinals react to the firing Saturday night of the oft-maligned Matheny, whose relationships with several players reportedly had deteriorated significantly.

They won the only game they’ve played under interim manager Mike Shildt and seem to believe they have the talent to make a second-half run at the Cubs and Brewers.

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“The franchise decided to make a move on the manager, and hopefully that wakes everybody up,” Cardinals catcher Yadi Molina told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during All-Star festivities. “I don’t think we need anybody. We’ve got the talent. We need to play better.”

Even before the break, Cards shortstop Paul Dejong had his eye on this Cubs series.

“I don’t think we feel like we’re too far out or something has to be super heroic for us to get back into this,” he said. “If we just continue to play good baseball on a daily basis and have a good series against the Cubs, it could jump-start our second half, for sure.”

A poor series isn’t likely to be a game-changer for the Cubs’ second-half efforts. But it could provide a quick measure of just how much pitching they might need before the deadline.

“Obviously, numerically, it’s probably a bigger series for them,” closer Brandon Morrow said. “I hope we come out hot and that sets the tone.”

After winning 12 of 15 games leading into the break to catch the Brewers and open a 2½-game division lead, the Cubs have their five rotation regulars lined up over the next four days, starting with Kyle Hendricks.

That means they’ll need a sixth starter — likely Luke Farrell — on Monday against the Diamondbacks. And how Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery, in particular, respond to the extra rest from the break could set the tone for the second half for an already well-used bullpen.

It might even put an emphasis on trade talks in the days before the deadline.

“No matter what happens, we’re going to acquire pitching. We’re going to try to acquire depth,” general manager Jed Hoyer said.

That means bullpen help as well as starting pitching, with starter Yu Darvish’s status still up in the air. He’s expected to throw from a mound this weekend for the first time since his last setback with his elbow.

Among the targets linked to the Cubs are Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ and left-handed relievers Brad Hand of the Padres and Zach Britton of the Orioles.

“No matter what happens, we know we’re going to need more pitching to get through the season,” Hoyer said.