The Chicago Cubs’ chances of hosting the NL wild-card game may be slim, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility – especially if their offense continues to produce like it did Wednesday.
Chicago seeks its fifth straight victory and a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday at Great American Ball Park.
St. Louis clinched the NL Central with a victory in the nightcap of its doubleheader with Pittsburgh on Wednesday, locking Chicago (93-65) into next Wednesday’s wild-card game against the Pirates (96-63). Home-field advantage is yet to be determined, though Pittsburgh’s magic number to clinch it is two. The game would be played at Wrigley Field in the event of a tie, as Chicago won the season series 11-8.
The Cubs close out with three road games against a Milwaukee team they’ve beaten nine of 10 times. The Pirates close out with a three-game home series against struggling Cincinnati (63-95), which has lost 11 in a row for the first time since June 1998.
Chicago had 16 hits in Wednesday’s 10-3 victory, including four from Starlin Castro, who hit his 11th home run. Austin Jackson also recorded a career-high five RBIs while going 3 for 5.
"We’ve got it going," manager Joe Maddon said. "Everyone is feeding off each other a little bit."
Jason Hammel (9-7, 3.86 ERA) has been shaky for Chicago down the stretch, posting a 6.39 ERA in his last eight starts. His struggles to eat up innings date back to the first half, as he’s completed fewer than six in 12 of 14 starts since July 8. He did so in 12 of 16 previously.
The right-hander seemed to take a step forward last Saturday against Pittsburgh, cruising through four scoreless innings while yielding just two hits. He gave up five straight hits to open the fifth, including a three-run homer to Jordy Mercer, and was yanked without recording another out in an eventual 4-0 loss.
"He was doing great," Maddon told MLB’s official website. "He really made good pitches, his stuff was really good and all of a sudden it happened quickly – a three-run homer."
Hammel has also failed to stick around in recent meetings with the Reds, completing five innings in all three matchups this year while posting a 4.20 ERA without a decision.
The Reds were limited to three sacrifice flies Wednesday, the first time they scored at least three runs all on sacrifice flies since a 6-3 loss to San Diego on Aug. 6, 1997. They haven’t lost 12 straight since Sept. 10-22, 1993.
"We know it’s ugly right now, and it doesn’t even look like baseball," manager Bryan Price said. "There is no satisfaction from playing this poorly. These guys have to get through this and get better."
Cincinnati could be limited again if Joey Votto and Todd Frazier are still sidelined. Votto, who has reached base in a career-high 46 consecutive games, sat out due to shoulder stiffness, while Frazier was scratched because of stiffness in his lower right calf and Achilles tendon.
John Lamb (1-4, 5.40) may have had both the best and worst starts of his rookie campaign his last two times out. The left-hander threw six-plus scoreless innings in a 2-1 loss at St. Louis on Sept. 21, then was shelled for five runs and two homers in a season-low two innings of a 10-2 loss to the New York Mets on Saturday.