CHICAGO -- Entering this season, the expectation was that the National League Central would be a tight race until the waning days of September. The division has certainly not disappointed in that regard, and things could be decided by the seven remaining games between the rival Cardinals and Cubs.
The Cubs will host the Cardinals for four games at Wrigley Field, beginning Thursday night. Then, the teams will conclude the regular season with a three-game set in St. Louis next weekend with potential postseason implications on the line. To date, the Cubs (6-0) and Cardinals (5-1) have taken care of business at home in the season series.
Here is a look at how the 2019 series has played out so far:
WINDY CITY SWEEP
Date: May 3 at Wrigley Field
Result: Cubs 4, Cardinals 0
This was a case of Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks and catcher Willson Contreras executing a game plan to perfection. Hendricks capitalized on St. Louis' early-count swings to the tune of an 81-pitch shutout to out-duel Jack Flaherty. It was the first Maddux (complete-game shutout on fewer than 100 pitches) for the Cubs since 2009 and the fourth lowest pitch count in a nine-inning shutout on record for an MLB pitcher.
Quotable: "Willy and I did a really good job of recognizing how aggressive they were early, even to start the game. So, once we made good pitches within the first two of the at-bat, they kind of kept being aggressive and we just were able to take advantage." -- Hendricks
Date: May 4 at Wrigley Field
Result: Cubs 6, Cardinals 5
St. Louis intentionally walked slugger Kyle Schwarber to load the bases in the fourth inning, eliciting boos from the Chicago crowd. That set the stage for catcher Taylor Davis -- up from Triple-A Iowa to fill in for injured backup Victor Caratini -- to launch the first of the Cubs' NL-leading 10 grand slams this year. He became the first Cubs player in history to hit a game-tying slam for his first career home run, and the blast helped the North Siders pull within a half-game of the first-place Cards.
Quotable: "Amazing. I was watching from the dugout. That was, like, perfect. It looked like a movie." -- Yu Darvish, on Davis' slam
Date: May 5 at Wrigley Field
Result: Cubs 13, Cardinals 5
Capped by a grand slam from the bat of Kris Bryant in the eighth, the Cubs poured out a dozen runs in the game's final four innings to run away with their seventh straight win. The victory helped Chicago overcome its rough start to the season, going from last place to the top of the division in 30 days. It made it clear that the Central would likely be a dogfight deep into the fall.
Quotable: "You normally don't have this quick rebound under these circumstances. Nobody in that room believed we were going to maintain that negative approach. We just don't do that." -- Cubs manager Joe Maddon
SWEET HOME, ST. LOUIS
Date: May 31 at Busch Stadium
Result: Cardinals 2, Cubs 1, 10 innings
When Matt Carpenter sliced a pitch from Cubs sidearmer Steve Cishek down the left-field line in the 10th inning, pulling off St. Louis' first walk-off win of the season, the victory provided a heavy dose of relief. The Cardinals had not won back-to-back games since a five-game winning streak ended on May 2, and this victory over the Cubs helped St. Louis turn the page on a rough May.
Quotable: "We got a good team, and we got good players. There are a lot of guys not performing as well as they would like, myself included, and I have a feeling that we're all going to get going at the same time. Hopefully, tonight was the start of it." -- Carpenter
Date: June 1 at Busch Stadium
Result: Cardinals 7, Cubs 4
A long rain delay in the fifth inning washed away the Cardinals' ability to keep Jack Flaherty on the mound in what was shaping up to be a strong start. When the game resumed, through, St. Louis pounced with a three-run sixth and then Dexter Fowler and Harrison Bader belted consecutive homers off lefty Kyle Ryan in the eighth. That stopped St. Louis' skid of eight straight losing series -- their longest such drought since 1990.
Quotable "It was fun to watch them do it after that delay. It's hard, not easy to do, you come in and sit around forever, and then you get back up to play." -- Flaherty
Date: June 2 at Busch Stadium
To complete the second sweep in two series between the bitter rivals, 37-year-old right-hander Adam Wainwright delivered a vintage performance. He piled up 126 pitches -- his most since 2013 -- and almost entirely avoided the top of the strike zone against the Cubs' lineup. His outing was capped off by a highlight-reel running, diving catch by Kolten Wong with two Chicago runners aboard in the eighth.
Quotable: "You don't see many pitchers like him. Everybody now is about throwing hard and getting you to chase balls out of the zone. Wainwright today, we know he doesn't throw very hard. He's a great veteran. He was just spotting his pitches." -- Cubs shortstop Javier Báez
ANOTHER WRIGLEY SWEEPING
Date: June 7 at Wrigley Field
Result: Cubs 3, Cardinals 1
Tasked with facing St. Louis for the second time in a six-day span, veteran lefty Cole Hamels adopted a fastball-heavy approach and handcuffed the Cards over eight shutout innings. He racked up 10 K's, turning in his first double-digit strikeout showing with no more than one walk issued in a start for the first time since July 28, 2016. A two-run shot from Báez in the first inning held up as the decisive offensive blow.
Quotable: "That's as good as anyone has thrown against us all year. He was in control, command of everything, changeup, put it where he wanted to. He had all his ingredients working." -- Cardinals manager Mike Shildt
Date: June 8 at Wrigley Field
Result: Cubs 9, Cardinals 4
St. Louis looked in control after an explosive first inning, when Marcell Ozuna and Bader each homered off Jon Lester to grab a 4-0 lead. Then, Chicago's pitching staff held the Cardinals to one hit over the next eight frames. Kyle Schwarber ended an 11-pitch battle with Flaherty with a game-tying homer in the fourth and the Cubs kept piling on runs, forcing St. Louis' arms to toil through 192 pitches in eight frames.
Quotable: "Schwarbs, that's what it's supposed to look like. And not because of the home run. What he's doing at the plate right now, we need to keep that in the jar, because that looks really good." -- Maddon
Date: June 9 at Wrigley Field
Result: Cubs 5, Cardinals 1
Schwarber remained locked in in the finale of this three-game set, knocking Wainwright out of the contest in the fifth inning with a go-ahead double. Meanwhile, Hendricks continued his mastery of St. Louis with seven strong innings with just one run allowed. The Cubs stayed in first place in the division with the win, and the home teams remained undefeated through the first three series of the season between the rivals.
Quotable: "They're good. We're good. Nobody's going away. This division's going to be tight all summer." -- Maddon
DUEL AT THE DEADLINE
Date: July 30 at Busch Stadium
When St. Louis swung a trade for slugger Paul Goldschmidt during the offseason, Cubs fans feared what he might do with more games against Chicago in his future. After all, Goldschmidt has a career OPS over 1.000 against the North Siders. The first baseman's blast off Darvish in this win was his seventh in an eight-game span, broke a tie in the game and pushed the Cardinals into first place in the division.
Quotable: "Right now, he's a monster." -- Darvish, on Goldschmidt
Date: July 31 at Busch Stadium
Result: Cubs 2, Cardinals 0
The Cubs pulled off a trade with the Tigers to land outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, and then the North Siders finally ended the streak of 10 straight wins by the home team in the 2019 series between Chicago and St. Louis. The difference-maker was, once again, Hendricks. The crafty righty spun seven shutout innings, giving him one earned run allowed in 23 frames against the Cardinals on the year.
Quotable: "It was just soft contact in the infield, strikeouts, popups [in the] infield. He makes pitches, and we've got to figure out a way to be more consistent. I feel like we're getting that Rubik's Cube solved now. We've just got to start plating some guys on him." -- Shildt, on Hendricks
Date: Aug. 1 at Busch Stadium
Result: Cardinals 8, Cubs 0
Flaherty has been on an incredible run in the second half, during which he's spun a 1.05 ERA in his first dozen starts to help St. Louis stay atop the division deep into September. In this August-opening outing, the righty did not allow a hit to the first 19 batters he faced and ended with nine strikeouts in seven frames. Chicago's lone hit on the day was a sixth-inning single from the newly-acquired Castellanos.
Quotable: "I think Jack just continues to grow his craft. I appreciate the way Jack is. I used the term before the game, and it was evident during the game -- Jack’s just in control. He's got a clarity to what he's doing." -- Shildt