The spotlight on the National League Central race could yet shine this week directly on Wrigley Field, where Dusty Baker’s Cincinnati Reds have a shot to celebrate a second division title in three years on Thursday.
Asked whether it would mean anything to clinch at Wrigley, where he did nine years ago as manager of the Cubs, Baker downplayed the idea.
“No,” he said before this week’s three-game series between the Reds and Cubs opened Tuesday. “I thought about that a few days ago. But they [second-place Cardinals] have to lose every game while we’re here and we have to win [all three].”
Actually, that wasn’t entirely true.
With their 3-1 win over the Cubs Tuesday night, the Reds still have a chance to clinch Thursday, despite St. Louis’ win over Houston Tuesday.
The Reds need to win tonight and Thursday, with the Cardinals losing to the last-place Astros both days for it to happen.
But Cincinnati takes a big advantage in their half of the equation considering pitching matchups the next two days that feature Cubs rookie Chris Rusin and 28-year-old journeyman right-hander Jason Berken facing Mike Leake (three wins in last four starts) and Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto.
Despite the lowly opponent, the Cardinals might not have as easy a road against Houston, which won four its previous six before Tuesday’s loss.
The Cards send Lance Lynn to the mound tonight for just his second start since a 2 1/2 -week demotion to the bullpen. He’ll face Houston’s top-performing starter this season, Lucas Harrell, who has won three straight starts and has a 2.81 ERA in his last four.
On Thursday, Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals’ worst-performing starter this season, goes in the finale against Houston, facing Bud Norris – who’s 7-4 with a 2.61 ERA in his career against the Cards.
And if this storyline gets through tonight intact, the Houston-St. Louis game starts 35 minutes before the Cubs-Reds scheduled start Thursday, giving those in the dugouts at Wrigley the best view of what’s at stake as their game winds down.
“Our goal is to just win,” Baker said. “I don’t care where we clinch it, really. We just want to clinch it. Then we can go for Step 2, and then hopefully Step 3, and then Step 4, and then go home.”