So, the apocalypse series is here. The Cubs, the hottest, most beloved, most exciting team in baseball, are at last culminating their long, long rivalry with the Cardinals with a postseason series. I've written so much about these two teams -- I wrote a freaking book about them, for crying out loud -- that to see them actually face off in an elimination series is almost too terrifying to wrap my mind around. Just know that this whole postseason preview is typed with bloody fingertips and a furrowed, sweaty brow.
• Game 1: Friday, Oct. 9, 6:30 p.m. ET, Busch Stadium, TBS (John Lackey vs. Jon Lester)
• Game 2: Saturday, Oct. 10, 5:30 p.m. ET, Busch Stadium, TBS (Jaime Garcia vs. Kyle Hendricks)
• Game 3: Monday, Oct. 12, TBD, Wrigley Field, TBS (Michael Wacha vs. Jake Arrieta)
• Game 4 (If necessary): Tuesday, Oct. 13, 4:30 p.m. ET, Wrigley Field, TBS (Lance Lynn vs. Jason Hammel)
• Game 5 (If necessary): Thursday, Oct. 15, 4:30 p.m. ET, Busch Stadium, TBS (TBD vs. BD)
Lineups (at least for Game 1)
3B Matt Carpenter
1B Stephen Piscotty
LF Matt Holliday
CF Jason Heyward
SS Jhonny Peralta
RF Randal Grichuk
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong
P John Lackey
CF Dexter Fowler
RF Kyle Schwarber
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Starlin Castro
LF Chris Coghlan
SS Addison Russell
C David Ross
P Jon Lester
Three questions for St. Louis
Who's healthy, and where do they play? The Cardinals have been riddled with injuries all season, but if you didn't know any better, looking at their roster, you might think everybody's just fine now. St. Louis has been without, at various points this season, Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, Holliday, Grichuk, Piscotty, Garcia, Lynn and Molina, but they're all (with the exception of Adams) on the postseason roster, in various stages of readiness. Holliday is working his way back into shape, Piscotty is still recovering from his terrifying accident a week ago in Pittsburgh, Grichuk can't throw a ball farther than 150 feet, Wainwright can't pitch more than two innings and Molina theoretically can't grip a bat, though manager Mike Matheny says he's "good to go." (Garcia and Lynn are back healthy and in the rotation.) The good news for the Cards is that they don't need all of these guys, with the exception of Molina; they just need most of them to be healthy and hitting. They're not all 100 percent, but they do give the Cardinals a ton of options. They can't all not be back up to speed, right? Right?
What's Wainwright's role? It was assumed by everyone who wasn't Adam Wainwright that Wainwright was done for the season when he tore his Achilles in April, but lo and behold, here he is. He has only thrown two innings since the injury, but he looked terrific in both, touching 94 mph with his fastball and displaying that lunatic curveball that makes him Adam Wainwright. Two innings -- and being Adam Wainwright -- was enough to get him on the postseason roster, so the question is how he'll be used. Will he be a long reliever? Will he be used surgically to get out of potential tough spots? Does he take over the eighth-inning role that the Cardinals have been trying to fill since Jordan Walden got hurt? And what if one of the Cards starters craps out? Would they dare use Wainwright, if he can show them some stamina in an early appearance, to fill in? The Cardinals have a Cy Young-caliber weapon who has been resting his arm all season and has saved a World Series before, ready to be used how they see fit. It's a handy little tool, to say the least.
How are Wacha and Lynn? The strength of the Cardinals' team this season, the reason it won 100 games, was the rotation. Every night out, you could count on Wacha/Lynn/Lackey/Garcia/Carlos Martinez to put the Cardinals in a position to win; most nights, if the Cardinals put three runs on the board, that was enough. But some tires have blown late in the year. Lackey and Garcia have remained consistent, but Lynn and particularly Wacha have run out of gas in the final month. Wacha has a 7.88 ERA in his last five starts and has shown a worrisome inability to keep his fastball down in the zone, not only making that pitch hittable but also diminishing the effect of his changeup, his best pitch. For the Cardinals to advance, they will need Wacha and Lynn to turn it around. And fast.
Three questions for Chicago Cubs
Has Lester figured out his baserunning problems? This was the year the rest of baseball finally realized Lester can't, or won't, throw over to first base, but few teams took advantage of it to the extent you would imagine. The exception? The Cardinals, who run like crazy the minute they reach first against Lester. (It appears to be a team-wide strategy, and a good one.) Lester is still getting by via the old Greg Maddux theorem of "the best pickoff move is not letting anyone get to first base," but know that the Cardinals, an OBP-based team anyway, will do everything they can to make his life as difficult as possible.
Is the bullpen strong enough? If the Cubs have a weakness -- and 97 win teams tend to not have many -- it's the bullpen, which has been more "effective" than "overpowering" this season. It's another reason Arrieta has been so amazing: He often eliminates the need to even go to the pen. But eventually, the Cubs will have to count on guys like Hector Rondon (who has been fine), Pedro Strop (who is coming around) and Justin Grimm (who has been a little wobbly). The Royals last season showed what you can do if you can shut the game down in the seventh inning. The Cubs don't have that sort of bullpen. The Cards will be eager to get Lester and especially Arrieta out as quickly as possible.
Are they truly ready? If there's one thing the Cardinals are comfortable with, it's October baseball. They have certainly played plenty of it. The Cubs are new to all of this, and while that's serving them well right now -- they're playing so well that they seem immune to pressure -- when things get tight, and something goes a little wrong, will they be able to calm things down and pull back from the brink? (Considering the Cubs' franchise history, this is no small point. We've seen what happens when Wrigley collectively freaks out.) This is an ineffable matter, and the postseason is so random anyway. But it has eaten up teams of the Cubs' caliber before. It has eaten up Cubs teams of the Cubs' caliber before.
The fear for the Cardinals is if the Cubs split at Busch, a real possibility: You're looking at having to beat Arrieta to avoid an elimination game on the road against a franchise and a fan base that's going insane and is bent on your destruction. Of course, that's the precise scenario the Cardinals faced two years ago at PNC Park with the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates … and they came back to win that series in five. The back of the Cubs' rotation is just iffy enough that the Cardinals, even with the presumed Arrieta loss, should be able to get it back to Busch. Can the Cubs win a Game 5 at Busch Stadium? Here's guessing … not yet. Also, worth noting: This series is going to be the death of me and/or just about everyone I love.
Cardinals in five.