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High stakes Cards games: Looks like all or nothing for Cubs and Cardinals down stretch

With seven of the last 10 games of the season against division-leading St. Louis, the Cubs have a chance to win the division if they do well — or get knocked all the way out of the wild-card chase if they don’t.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals
Nick Castellanos and the rest of the Cubs play the rival Cardinals in seven of the final 10 games of the season, with a division title in play for one and possible month off in October for the other.
Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Forget all the noise about whether the Cubs can win a wild-card game, much less on the road.

Because whether they like it or not, the schedule has turned the Cubs’ playoff prospects into a matter of division title or bust.

With seven of the final 10 against the first-place Cardinals starting Thursday at home, the Cubs’ playoff chances look as simple as this:

Beat the Cardinals, and control the division; do poorly against the Cardinals, and kiss the wild card goodbye, along with the division.

“That’s how we have to look at it, too,” said third baseman Kris Bryant, the reigning National League Player of the Week. “It’s just so weird how all this is coming together. But it’s in our hands here. If we do really well against them these last seven games — obviously with the Pirates in between — we would set ourselves up pretty good.”

The other scenario involves the Cubs and Cards knocking each other around enough that the Brewers — without another game against a team within eight games of .500 — stroll past both for the NL Central title.

That would leave the Cubs, Cardinals and Nationals rolling around in the mud for two wild-card spots.

“I think guys are ready to go,” said left fielder Kyle Schwarber, whose game-tying sacrifice fly in the fourth inning Wednesday against the Reds gave him 91 RBI this season. “We’re in a good spot. We can control where we end up.”

The Cubs entered Wednesday trailing the Cardinals by 2½ games, which gave them the opportunity to catch the Cards by winning both series (5-2 total), even if everything else remained the same.

Both teams have a day off and a three-game road series in between, the Cubs against a bad team in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals against a good one in Arizona.

“I think our philosophy all along has been to win the division,” said Cole Hamels, the four-time All-Star who has struggled lately, but who also has an outsized influence on the outcome with both remaining starts against the Cardinals.

“That’s just where our focus needs to be,” he said. “We all saw what happened in the wild card [loss last year to the Rockies in 13 innings], and it’s not very fun. That’s what we’re truly focused on, is not putting ourselves in that situation again.

“It’s 100 percent to win the division; beat the Cardinals and go from there.”

At the very least, there rarely has been this much at stake for both teams this late in the season with so many shots at each other remaining.

“I was indoctrinated in ’15,” fifth-year Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I was so American League, and then you get here and you get the feel and sense of it. And now it’s exaggerated more based on what’s going on. It’s great.

“When you look at that schedule at the beginning of the year, you’re hoping you have like an eight-game lead by the time it occurs. But then you get in the position we’re in and you’re thankful that you have to play them that many times.”

The Cardinals haven’t made the playoffs since 2015, when the wild-card Cubs eliminated them in the Division Series.

The Cubs, who are without two of their best hitters down the stretch in Javy Baez (broken thumb) and Anthony Rizzo (sprained ankle), seek a fifth consecutive trip to the postseason.

The Cubs are 6-0 at home this season against the Cardinals, but 1-5 in St. Louis. The Cardinals are one of the hottest teams in baseball since the All-Star break, and the Cubs are among the worst in the NL on the road.

“We’ve got our work cut out, but I think we’ve got the right attitude right now and with the people that are here,” Bryant said, praising the work of a slew of injury replacements. “I just think everybody has the right mindset and is ready to take this on.”