ST. LOUIS — The champagne will be on ice Tuesday night in Busch Stadium when the Cubs face the St. Louis Cardinals, with Chicago trying to clinch its second straight National League Central title.
It is taking the Cubs (88-68) much longer to reach this point than it did a year ago, when they poured the bubbly in mid-September and won the division by 17 1/2 games. However, manager Joe Maddon feels his team has finally reached the level of play he has sought all season.
“We’re definitely arriving at the same mental level we’ve had the last two seasons,” he said Monday night after the Cubs’ 10-2 rout of St. Louis. “The guys have been there, done that. They know what it’s about.”
The Cubs can wrap things up Tuesday with a win or a Milwaukee Brewers loss to the Cincinnati Reds. Jake Arrieta (14-9, 3.43 ERA) will try to make sure they walk in through the front door. The right-hander will make his second start since a stint on the 10-day disabled list caused by a hamstring injury.
Arrieta returned to the rotation Thursday night in Chicago’s 5-3, 10-inning victory over the Brewers, pitching five innings and allowing just one run on a solo homer. Arrieta settled for a no-decision.
In his career, Arrieta has been tough on the Cardinals, going 8-3 with a 2.06 ERA over 16 starts. That is the lowest ERA by any active pitcher against St. Louis. Arrieta is 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA this year in three starts against the Cardinals.
Carlos Martinez (12-11, 3.63 ERA) will oppose Arrieta. It will be Martinez’s fifth start of the year against Chicago. Martinez is 1-1 with a 4.26 ERA in his previous four outings, although his two games in St. Louis have been considerably better than the two at Wrigley Field. He is 4-4 with a 4.55 ERA in 23 career appearances, including 13 starts, against the Cubs.
Martinez last pitched Thursday night, notching an 8-5 win in Cincinnati despite giving up nine hits and four runs over 6 1/3 innings. He walked one and whiffed six.
The Cardinals hope Martinez will have regular batterymate Yadier Molina behind the plate Tuesday. Molina left the Monday game in the seventh inning after taking consecutive foul balls off the mask. He successfully passed the concussion protocol.
“The first one gave us some concern,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “He said everything was OK and he just needed a second. Unfortunately, the second one got him a little better. At that point, there was not going to be a conversation. We have to get him out.”
The Monday night defeat officially eliminated the Cardinals (81-75) from the division race. They did manage to stay within 2 1/2 games of Colorado for the NL’s second wild-card spot, getting help from Miami, which edged the Rockies 5-4 at Coors Field.
St. Louis has a game in hand on Colorado but will need the Rockies to lose at least two more games to have a shot at getting into the wild-card game. The Cardinals also trail Milwaukee by a game in the wild-card race, and St. Louis hosts the Brewers over the weekend to finish the season.