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Cardinals-Cubs with a division title on the line: Breaking down the high-stakes showdown

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Starting pitching crucial for Cardinals, Cubs (0:45)

David Ross and Tim Kurkjian break down why starting pitching is a key factor for both the Cardinals and Cubs as they battle for the NL Central. (0:45)

It doesn't get much better for baseball fans than the St. Louis Cardinals vs. the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field with a division title and a playoff berth on the line. That's what we've got for the next four days, with three more matchups between the storied rivals -- and even potentially higher stakes -- next weekend at St. Louis.

The Cardinals come in with a slight lead in the National League Central, and the safety net of the wild card for the division runner-up potentially has a hole in it, as the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers are bunched with the Cubs and Cards in the standings, as well. One of those four teams will be left out of the postseason altogether, and of course the division winner has a big leg up on the wild-card teams.

With that backdrop, ESPN baseball reporters Jesse Rogers and Bradford Doolittle look at how both teams got here, break down the four-game series in Chicago and assess the long-term impact the next 10 days could have on the iconic franchises.

Jesse Rogers: It's really been a strange year for both the Cards and the Cubs. Followers of the NL Central should recognize how the teams have switched roles this season. It wasn't long ago that St. Louis had trouble running the bases, playing defense and holding late leads, but the Cards have been excellent in all three categories in 2019. Not so for the Cubs, who lead the league in outs made on the basepaths, have committed the second-most errors in the NL and have converted only 58% of their save chances. The Cards have committed the fewest errors and are first in save percentage, so the question for Brad is, why haven't they pulled away?

Bradford Doolittle: In a nutshell, the Cardinals have done the little things very well under Mike Shildt but have been inconsistent with the big things. All of those categories you've mentioned have been great for St. Louis, as well as hitting with men on base and keeping at-bats alive with foul balls. But the Cardinals are league average in batting, on-base and slugging, which has led to inconsistencies. When the Cardinals score, they are tough to beat. The Cubs seem like the polar opposite: They have struggled with fundamentals, at times, but also have shown the ability to bludgeon teams. So, Jesse, if the Cubs had played more sound baseball this season, what would the standings look like in the NL Central?

Rogers: It's a good point. If the Cubs were just middle of the pack -- not even top five or top 10 -- in some of these categories, they would be in first place with a decent lead, I imagine. It's one of my critiques of Joe Maddon this year, just as it was for former Cards manager Mike Matheny. Fundamentals can be traced back to the manager: It might not be his fault, but it's happening on his watch. Anyway, the one thing the Cubs have going for them is they're a team that in the past has performed at a high level in all these areas, so there still is an expectation that trait will come out in the final games of the season and then in October. I wonder if Cards fans have become jaded. Do they think the opposite, that it could all go south? Or are they convinced they have the best team in the division?

Doolittle: I get a sense that until the Cardinals clinch, there is a sense of impending doom with their fans. For one thing, while the announced attendance totals have remained strong, there have been a ton of no-shows in St. Louis, including during a very attractive series against the Nationals with high stakes. I get that it's during the week and school is back in session, but aren't these the "best fans in baseball?" A lot of people I talk to seem raw that the team didn't trade for another starter at the deadline, even though their rotation has been lights-out ever since. Then again, when the video board showed Cincinnati's Aristides Aquino going deep against the Cubs, everyone went nuts. They want to believe, but they aren't all the way there yet. If the Cards flop against the Cubs, it could get a little ugly in St. Louis. What do you think: Joe Maddon, your 2020 Cardinals manager? Seriously, which of these teams is at more of a crossroads?

Rogers: It's a good question, but it would be hard not to answer the Cubs. A real potential to break up their core, let alone letting go of their World Series-winning manager, screams "crossroads." But at least it's not a rebuild for either team. Which brings us to these seven meetings over the next 10 days. I'm going to take the easy way out and say the team currently in front -- St. Louis -- is going to hang on. The one caveat is the extra game played at Wrigley Field. The Cubs' road record this season tells us they need to win three of four in Chicago to give themselves a good chance next week -- though they might be able to pencil in three wins in Pittsburgh in between. There's a better chance of that happening than the Cards sweeping Arizona, so there are a lot of layers to this. If the Cards are the favorite because they're in front, it's a 60-40 thing, at best.

Doolittle: In theory, the Cardinals match up well with Chicago because they've gotten pretty stingy with giving up homers, which obviously are the engine that drives the Cubs' offense. St. Louis has a better bullpen too, one of the best in baseball over the second half. If St. Louis can earn a split, I think they'd take that, and they have Jack Flaherty -- baseball's hottest pitcher -- on the hill in Thursday's series opener. If the Redbirds take that one, that ratchets up the pressure on Chicago. The weather could be a factor too: If the wind is blowing in and helps keep the scores low, that also helps the Cardinals. How much do you think the running game could play into any tight matchups here? It's not quite Whiteyball, circa 1985, but St. Louis leads the majors in thefts.

Rogers: Normally, I'd say "eh" to a base-stealing question, but then again, that's another smaller part of the game in which the Cubs have had issues. Their catchers lead MLB in errors, and the team ranks 26th in caught stealing percentage. Those free bases matter in tight games. We'll assume there will be some close ones over the next seven meetings, so yes, it's a concern. And despite his surprise return to the lineup, it remains to be seen how effective Anthony Rizzo can be on defense with a sprained ankle. There are so many big and little things he does well, starting with the bunt defense he got hurt on, and Rizzo's limitations could still show up at some point over the next four days. Here is the bottom line for the Cubs: They need to hit to cover a bunch of warts. Nico Hoerner has to keep hitting. Jason Heyward has to keep hitting. And Kyle Schwarber really needs to keep hitting. They all do. As much as the starting pitching should be a strength and lead the way, the Cubs have to cross their fingers and hope for a lot of offense, because the rotation has been middling, at best.

Doolittle: The Cardinals need to keep the games close early and turn this into a battle of bullpens, which St. Louis should win. Their rotation can go toe-to-toe with Chicago's, even though the names might not be as recognizable. Flaherty is throwing better than anybody on either team. If Cardinals hitters can stay disciplined, drive up pitch counts and continue to make the most of their offensive opportunities, they'll be in good shape. But St. Louis has vacillated too often between scoring seven or eight runs and then just a couple. They need to even that out and get into that Chicago bullpen.