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Cardinals vs. Cubs preview

Unfortunately, the Cardinals weekend series against the Cubs is going to be a lot more meaningful than most St. Louis fans hoped.

In fact, I was planning on the Redbirds clinching before the Wee Bears left town. At least before they lost five out of their last six at home, that is. Now the best the Cardinals could hope for is a sweep that would reduce the magic number to three (two if the Brewers beat the Cubs Thursday) by the time the North Siders left town.

In reality, the three-game set at Busch Stadium could be the Cubs version of Custer's Last Stand. Or the Cardinals version of Napoleon's Waterloo.

The Cubs trail St. Louis by 8 1/2 games while the Cardinals have 15 games to play and the Cubs have 18. So anything less than a sweep by the Cubs would require a total collapse from the Birds to give them a chance to get back in the race. On the other hand... if the Cardinals do allow themselves to be swept, the tension factor is going to go through the roof and they will spend the last 12 games on the slate desperately trying to avoid a monumental collapse.

The Cardinals are 8-5 against Chicago this year.

blog post photo

Cardinals Starter John Smoltz will return from a bout with tendonitis to face the Cubs in the Friday opener of a key three-game set. AP photo.

The matchups:

Friday: John Smoltz returns to the rotation after missing a start with tendonitis in his shoulder. He's 3-6 with a 6.53 ERA overall and 1-1 with a 3.27 ERA in four starts with the Cardinals. He'll face lefty Ted Lilly (12-8, 3.05). The Cardinals have been struggling with lefties again lately and Lilly should be no exception. He is 7-3 lifetime against the Redbirds with a 2.89 ERA. And he might be especially motivated to make a good showing after he was roundly booed during All-Star Game introductions at Busch Stadium.

It would sure be nice if the Cardinals could find a way to overcome Lilly and win the first game. That would basically take all the pressure off, allowing the Cubs to gain one game in the standings at best in the series. If the Cardinals won Friday, they would be 86-62. That means if they went 6-8 in their last 14 games that the Cubs would have to go 17-0 for the rest of the season just to tie St. Louis.

Saturday: Chris Carpenter (16-4, 2.45) is coming off his worst start of the season and will face the Cubs' glove twirling Ryan Dempster (10-8, 3.84). Was Carpenter's blow up against Atlanta a fluke or is the pitcher, who has missed almost all of the last two seasons with arm troubles, out of gas? Carp was going to get some extra rest. But the continued struggles of Todd Wellemeyer and the lingering injuries of Kyle Lohse have forced St. Louis' big three to keep their noses to the grindstone.

Sunday: Adam Wainwright (18-8, 2.59) will toe the rubber against Carlos Zambrano (8-6, 3.94) who may well be auditioning for teams that might be interested in trading for him and his massive contract.