Card sharks? Cubs beat Bucs 3-0 to extend lead, await final series vs. rivals

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Jon Lester pitched six scoreless innings and scored the third run of the game.

Move over Lou Brock and Rogers Hornsby, this Cubs-Cardinals thing is about to get real.

“It should be pretty hot around here,” manager Joe Maddon said after the Cubs and Jon Lester beat the Pirates 3-0 on Thursday night to set the stage for a knock-down, potentially Cards-out weekend to finish the season.

“The stakes are high now,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

After restoring their division lead to one game with three to play, all the Cubs have to do now is finish off the Cardinals in the biggest series between the archrivals since the upstart Cubs eliminated the Cards in their playoff series three years ago.

This time, it’s the Cards playing the upstarts, led by a third-month manager, hungry for a postseason berth and desperate to bounce back from the sting of a three-game sweep by the Brewers this week.

Another history-making chapter in Cubs-Cards history?

“We’re not thinking about that sh–,” said right-fielder Jason Heyward, who played with the Cardinals in 2015. “We’re thinking about the games we’ve got to play on the schedule. Whoever we’ve got to play at this point, we need to try to win, obviously.”

But for the love of Ernie Broglio, it doesn’t get bigger than this for a finishing kick for both teams.

“It’s going to be just like those [National League Division Series] games in ’15 where we’re all going to be taking shots at each other and trying to get the best of each other,” said left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who hit a ball on top of the right-field video board in that series. “It’s going to be an exciting time. I know we’re all looking forward to it.”

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Here’s what’s at stake:

For the Cubs, any combination of Cubs wins or Brewers losses that adds up to three clinches a third consecutive NL Central title and prevents a one-game division tiebreaker Monday or a loser-out wild-card game Tuesday — or both.

“You want to avoid all that stuff at all costs,” said Maddon, who declared Thursday the start of the Cubs’ postseason.

For the Cardinals, they’re eliminated with any combination of Cards losses or Dodgers wins that adds up to three.

“We got a team coming in that’s fighting for their postseason life,” said Lester (18-6), who navigated heavy traffic early to survive six scoreless innings in his final start of an All-Star regular season. “So we know the challenges there. They always play us tough, and we play them tough. I like our matchups. I like where we’re at.”

Lester, the presumptive postseason Game 1 starter, offered a glimpse into what the start of October might look like if the Cubs can avoid the one-game scenarios early in the week.

In a game some characterized as a must-win, he stranded seven runners, including five in scoring position, before retiring the final seven in a 108-pitch performance. In the process, he lowered his season ERA to 3.32.

“He wasn’t sharp command-wise,” Maddon said. “But he battled. He showed his mettle.”

And he enters the playoffs on his best eight-start run of the year: 6-1 with a 1.71 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 47⅓ innings.

“He’s been a staple for us for four years now,” said Rizzo, who also knows how hot this weekend figures to get against a team that has the most wins in the National League (40-26) since Mike Shildt replaced Mike Matheny as manager.

“Where they’ve come from firing their manager to being in contention for the second wild-card spot is unbelievable. You can’t discredit what they’ve done in that clubhouse, with their new manager. Hopefully, they run out of gas this weekend.”

More Cubs-Cards history in the making?

“It could be, that’s for sure,” Schwarber said. “It’s going to be another exciting three games, and I feel the emotions are going to be high, and both teams just need to win.”

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