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Series-clincher could be toughest for Cubs

Chicago on verge of advancing to NLCS for first time since 2003

CHICAGO -- And now for the Cubs, after their biggest moment at Wrigley Field in a dozen years, the hardest part.

Finishing the job.

Joe Maddon likes to keep up with other games when he can, and on Monday that meant that he snuck a peak at the Royals' five-run rally in the eighth inning, which preempted the Astros' clinching of the American League Division Series. Instead of celebrating, the AL version of the upstart Cubs must travel to Kauffman Stadium for a deciding Game 5.

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"I did see a lot of that at the end,'' Maddon said after the Cubs' 8-6 Game 3 victory over the Cardinals. "I know Houston was in good position, and it didn't play. It's very difficult [to finish off a series]. It's very difficult to finish off good teams. You can take nothing for granted. You don't pack up the bats until the last outs ever, and I love it for that.''

Before, during and after the record-setting six-homer, Jake Arrieta-stamped victory, there was a giddiness around Wrigley Field that made you think the only question in the minds of the Cubs fans was who Arrieta will face in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, the Mets or the Dodgers?

And why not, really?

On a 73-degree night with the wind blowing toward Lake Michigan, Arrieta didn't have his good stuff, but the Cubs took a 2-1 edge in the series.

They started smashing home runs in the second inning and kept hitting them until their last at-bat in the eighth inning. They hit three off St. Louis starter Michael Wacha and three off the bullpen, including Jorge Soler's blast off Adam Wainwright, the proudest Cardinal in a clubhouse full of proud Cardinals.

Video: [email protected] Gm3: Cubs hit six homers in win over Cards

While St. Louis led until the back-to-back homers from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the fifth inning, the overall level of angst at Wrigley Field was down noticeably from previous Octobers. Fans are buying into the belief that Maddon and his players have been sowing -- reinforced in large part by the victory over the Pirates in the Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser -- and for many in the crowd of 42,411 it seemed a given that the Cubs would win.

After all, this was the 15th consecutive time they've won when Arrieta has started.

Video: [email protected] Gm3: Arrieta strikes out nine over 5 2/3

Fans waved their "W'' flag towels with abandon, sang along with a video of Ernie Banks leading the seventh-inning stretch and began clearing their schedules for Oct. 20-22, the middle games of the NLCS.

There's no reason to kill their buzz, other than the history of the game and the understanding that this is a series between two of the best teams anywhere. You'd be silly to write off the Cardinals, even if the Cubs' youth did make this game feel like the balance of power has changed in the NL Central.

The moment of truth usually doesn't happen in Game 3 of a series that's tied 1-1. That comes when you have to come from behind or hold a tight lead in the clinching game.

Like Maddon said, it's never easy.

Mix in the history of heartache that Tom Ricketts, Theo Epstein and Maddon have so far kept at arm's length, and sprinkle in a dose of the Cardinals' historical resilience, seen in the 2013 NLDS and the 2011 World Series. That's the stew that will be brewing when the Midwest rivals return to Wrigley on Tuesday afternoon, with shadows adding to the drama, at least in the early innings, as the Cubs try to clinch a postseason series at Wrigley Field for the first time in franchise history.

Video: [email protected] Gm3: Rondon gets Holliday to seal the win

Mike Matheny will take his chances.

"I liked the way the guys competed, and I like the odds when our backs are against the wall,'' said the Cardinals' manager. "This is the type of team we've had all season long, regardless of what anybody else thinks, regardless of odds, regardless of who we're stacked up against. This team just continues to fight. That's not something you lose regardless of where you stand.''

While the Cardinals could use another true slugger in the middle of their order, playing the role that Carlos Beltran handled so fabulously in 2013, they were the only 100-win team in the Major Leagues. They've won mostly because of the quality of the pitchers they had stacked up behind Wainwright, who was lost to an Achilles injury in April, and were hurt when Carlos Martinez was lost in September.

Matheny is starting John Lackey on three days' rest against a fully rested Jason Hammel in Game 4, with Wainwright's first start since April a possibility if there is a Game 5. This isn't ideal, but the Cardinals just scored four earned runs on Arrieta, who had given up only two in his last 76 innings. You'll take hope where you can find it, and look for the Cardinals to come out swinging against Hammel.

"I thought we made some loud outs at times, thought we took some good approaches against their whole staff,'' Matheny said. "I just felt like we were going to be able to come back.''

The Cubs' one major question mark is the depth of the pitching staff, especially the bullpen. Maddon acknowledged that after Game 3, saying that "if we're going to do what we want to do'' the bullpen is going to have to improve.

There are other Cub managers you could ask about not having the relief pitchers they needed in October. You could probably go back further but I guarantee Jim Riggleman (1998), Dusty Baker (2003) and Lou Piniella (2007-08) believe that a couple more good arms in the bullpen could have turned the tide in the series that sent their teams home.

So what happens when Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop or Travis Wood have to lock down a clincher? The Cardinals hope to avoid that situation but, if it comes, they'll take their chances.

"I'm excited to come out and watch [my players] compete," Matheny said. "That's what this team does well, and what they've done all season. It's defined who they are. Tomorrow is the kind of game they'll come out with a lot of heart and do their thing."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
Read More: Chicago Cubs, Jorge Soler, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Schwarber, Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant