Bernie: With The Cardinals And Cubs Eying Each Other, Chicago’s Injury List Continues To Grow

With a tense and intriguing NL Central race down to a mad sprint, it’s a great time to check in on the rival Chicago Cubs.

The Cardinals and Cubs will be seeing a lot of each other starting Thursday.

The Cubs’ injury list is growing, but that hasn’t slowed them down.

The Cubs stayed within two games of the first-place Cardinals in the standings by smashing the Reds 8-2 on Monday night for their fifth consecutive victory.

In going 4-0 against the Pirates and Reds since Friday, the Cubs outscored the two NL Central also-rans by an embarrassing margin of 55-17.

The Cubs have won the first four games of their final homestand of the season — a 10-game stay that concludes with four against the visiting Cardinals beginning Thursday.

The Cubs are 51-24 at Wrigley Field, with two more to go against the Reds, and four vs. St. Louis.

There are, however, some concerns in Wrigleyville …

TRACKING THE CUBS

First baseman Anthony Rizzo could miss the rest of the regular season after spraining his right ankle in Sunday’s win over the Pirates.

At the very least, Rizzo has been ruled out for at least a week — meaning that he’ll miss the four-game series against the Cardinals at Wrigley.

The Cubs already are competing without shortstop Javy Baez (broken thumb), shortstop Addison Russell (concussion) and closer Craig Kimbrel (elbow.)

Kimbrel could return at some point during the Cardinals’ series.

Russell can come off the IL as soon as Thursday.

Baez won’t play again this season.

With seven games remaining against the Cardinals over the final two weeks, the The Rizzo injury is a blow to the Cubs’ quest to win the NL Central.

Rizzo has hit well at Busch Stadium, with an .794 OPS in St. Louis since the beginning of the 2014 season.

But in Chicago … scary.

Rizzo has crushed St. Louis pitching at Wrigley Field. Here are Rizzo’s stats vs. the Cardinals at Wrigley Field since the start of the 2014 season:

♦  227 plate appearances
♦  .371 batting average
♦ Walk rate of 15%
♦ .493 OBP
♦. 551 slugging percentage
♦ 1.044 OPS
♦  83 percent above league average offensively in park adjusted runs created.

With Rizzo missing, Cubs manager Joe Maddon will make extensive use of backup catcher Victor Caratini at first base, with Ian Happ and catcher Jonathan Lucroy also in the mix.

“It’s going to be tough to be without Anthony for a while,” Cubs president Theo Epstein told reporters Monday. “He’s so important to everything we do on and off the field. We’re not shutting any doors (on potential timelines for a return), but we’re realistic that this is a legitimate injury that under ideal circumstances would take some time to heal … it’s a significant hurdle for the team, but it’s one that we certainly can overcome.”

This season Rizzo and Baez have combined for 55 homers, 178 RBIs, 66 doubles, 291 hits, and 176 runs scored.

“You don’t replace an Anthony Rizzo or a Javy Baez,” the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist told reporters.

That includes their stellar work defensively. Baez ranks third among MLB shortstops this season with 15 defensive runs saved. Rizzo has ranked among the top 10 MLB leaders in defensive runs saved at first base in seven of the last eight seasons.

“When you get to the really tightly contested games this time of the year, the experience does matter,” Maddon said. “Their ability to slow things down matters,” he said. “Their ability to not be intimidated by any situation matters.

“You’re missing all that. But nobody’s going to cry for you.”

NOTES ON A SCORECARD:  the Cubs continue to reap remarkable benefits from July 31 trade acquisition Nicholas Castellanos. In 43 games as a Cub, he’s batting .339 with 15 homers, 18 doubles, a .689 slugging percentage and 1.057 OPS … in 11 games (38 PA) since rejoining the Cubs earlier this month after a personal leave, Zobrist is batting .382 with a .447 OBP and .529 slug. Zobrist has settled in at the leadoff spot for the Cubs, and that had been a problem area for much of the season …

As a bonus, Jason Heyward is thriving after being moved out of the No. 1 spot (happily) to plug in Zobrist at No. 1 … Heyward struggled as a leadoff man, but in his last 12 games batting elsewhere in the lineup Heyward is hitting .351 with a 1.181 OPS … in his first eight games as an emergency fill in for Baez and Russell, rookie shortstop Nico Hoerner has given the Cubs a substantial boost with a .364 batting average, 1.023 OPS, two homers and 11 RBIs. Maddon has said Hoerner will continue to start as long as he continues to hit. Hoerner had never played above Class AA ball until now.

TUESDAY NIGHT: The Cubs will start Yu Darvish against the Reds’ Sonny Gray, first pitch at 7:05 p.m. Gray is 10-7 with a 2.80 ERA this season … Gray has a 1.50 ERA in his last seven starts … in 11 starts since the All-Star break Darvish is 4-2 with a 2.44 ERA and 36.6 percent strikeout rate … the Cubs are 19-14 against the Pirates and Reds this season. The Cardinals went 26-12 vs. the Pirates and Reds.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie