CHICAGO -- Mike Matheny isn't giving the Cubs advice. That's the last thing he would do.But when the Cardinals arrived at Wrigley Field for a four-game series, their manager could certainly relate to the position the Cubs have put themselves in.This time last season, the Cardinals were 72-40 and deflating
CHICAGO -- Mike Matheny isn't giving the Cubs advice. That's the last thing he would do.
But when the Cardinals arrived at Wrigley Field for a four-game series, their manager could certainly relate to the position the Cubs have put themselves in.
This time last season, the Cardinals were 72-40 and deflating opposing hitters with the stingiest pitching staff in the game. So Matheny was asked how Joe Maddon and the Cubs should approach their final 50 regular-season games now that they've built a commanding lead in the National League Central.
The answer: Just keep doing what you've been doing.
"We just try to get it into its simplest form," Matheny said before the Cards' 4-3, 11-inning loss on Thursday. "You can try and put together some theories, some ideas, if we just do this, [but] I just don't think you limit yourself. You can't back off, start allowing anything except your very best every single night. I think you're opening up the door for this game to humble you."
Injuries and diminished performance have destroyed the plans that the Cardinals made in Spring Training. Their rotation has a 5.40 ERA since the All-Star break, leaving them battling for an NL Wild Card spot rather than making a run for a fourth consecutive division title.
Michael Wacha's unstable shoulder is the latest blow for a rotation that lost John Lackey to free agency and Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery. So Matheny will hand the ball to rookie Luke Weaver for his Major League debut in a Saturday afternoon showcase, hoping that Weaver and fellow rookie Alex Reyes can help the Cardinals survive what looks like a six-team fight for the two Wild Card spots.
This weekend's series is one of those summertime classics that will have Wrigleyville buzzing all four days. The atmosphere should be wild on Friday afternoon, when Adam Wainwright faces defending Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.
There weren't many empty seats in the ballpark on Thursday when Jon Lester threw the first pitch to Matt Carpenter in the series opener, for that matter. These rivals pack in crowds no matter where they are in the standings, but seldom has there been a time when the Cubs so clearly have the upper hand.
Yet Matheny isn't thinking about the big picture. He is only thinking about how to beat Lester, and said he'd start figuring out the best way to handle Arrieta as soon as the series opener was over.
"We just put our nose down whether we're in first place, whether we're not, whether we're somewhere in the middle," he said. "You can't tell us until we get to the end of the season how this whole thing is going to play out. Just keep playing the game, put your head down, trust yourself and the people around you."
That includes two prized prospects who were together in New Orleans earlier in the week, with the Memphis Redbirds.
Reyes, a 6-3, 200-something-pound specimen who has been lighting up scouts' eyes and radar guns since he was a teenager, is getting a chance to be a key piece working somewhere in front of closer Seunghwan Oh out of the bullpen. Weaver, a first-round pick from Florida State in 2014, replaces Wacha.
It's hard to overstate their importance to St. Louis, both in this Wild Card race and in the future. They could become huge pieces as general manager John Mozeliak constructs a rotation behind Carlos Martínez, Mike Leake and Wainwright.
Reyes had never been to Wrigley Field before Thursday. He walked under the stands to the visitors' clubhouse when he arrived, not stopping to take a peek at the ivy-covered wall and vintage scoreboard.
"I want the first time I see it to be when I walk out for batting practice," Reyes said.
Although Matheny is reeling from concern about Wacha's future, he's thrilled to have Reyes and Weaver on his 25-man roster.
"I love watching young guys come in and do their thing," Matheny said. "We'll get a look at them in Spring Training, start figuring out what kind of makeup they have, watch them have some success, and the next legitimate step is to be thrown in and see what they can do. Weaver's had a great season. Alex, obviously, everybody's heard about him. I'm excited to watch them pitch."
Reyes probably would have been with the Cardinals sooner, but he began this season serving a 50-game suspension for marijuana use.
In his Major League debut, against the Reds on Tuesday, Reyes threw a perfect inning by pounding the strike zone with high-90s fastballs. Wainwright was among those watching with big smiles from the top step of the dugout.
Matheny knows he's found a potential difference-maker for the stretch run, but he wants to let Reyes settle in before he draws any conclusions.
"There are a lot of positives, but he's got a lot to learn," Matheny said. "We'll see how he fits in with our bullpen."
Matheny sees the bullpen as the best fit for Reyes, but Reyes could be shifted to the rotation if Weaver doesn't carry over his success from his quick trip through the Minor Leagues. Weaver has made 38 starts, compiling a 1.78 ERA. He's only listed at 170 pounds, but he can run his fastball up into the mid-90s and scores high in pitchability.
"Weaver's had a great season," Matheny said. "[He's] the kind of pitcher who continues to impress us the more we see him."
Matheny doesn't worry about the nerves Weaver will experience making his debut in such a high-profile situation.
"Take a young guy who has never pitched in the big leagues," he said. "I don't care if you have two people in the stands or 100,000 of them, their heart's going to be thumping out of their chest. They're going to be excited. It's how they harness that. Energy is a good thing."
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.