(Sports Network) - The St. Louis Cardinals may have some bad blood boiling from a skirmish with their most recent opponent, but the team's most storied rival will be next on the docket when the current National League Central leaders return to Busch Stadium tonight.
Fresh off a heated and successful series with the Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals head back home for the first of three straight meetings with the slumping Chicago Cubs beginning this evening.
The defending NL Central champion Cardinals regained first place in the division by winning three straight times against the upstart Reds earlier in the week, highlighted by a charged-up 8-4 victory in Tuesday's test. That game featured a benches-clearing melee between the teams in the opening inning, brought on by an argument between St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina and Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips at the plate.
The incident will cost the Cardinals their manager for the first two games of this set, as Major League Baseball suspended both Tony La Russa and Reds skipper Dusty Baker as a result of the brawl. Molina and St. Louis pitcher Chris Carpenter were also fined an undisclosed amount for their part in the event.
St. Louis certainly seemed to get a spark from Tuesday's happenings, as the club followed up that win with a 6-1 decision the following day to cap the sweep. That victory gave the Cardinals a one-game edge on the Reds for first place heading into tonight's play.
"We won three games against a team that was in first place at their park," said Adam Wainwright, the winning pitcher in Wednesday's contest. "It's just good to get the three (wins)."
Wainwright (17-6) did his part in the finale, as the All-Star hurler yielded just two hits and walked none over seven shutout innings to join Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez as the only 17-game winners in the majors this season.Colby Rasmus provided all the offense Wainwright would need by belting his first career grand slam in the fifth inning to break a scoreless tie.
Rasmus finished 2-for-5 with two runs scored on the afternoon, while Skip Schumaker went 3-for-4 with an RBI single to help St. Louis post its eighth win in 11 games.
While the Cardinals are riding high at the moment, the Cubs have to be feeling mighty low after how they've performed over the past few weeks. Thursday's 8-7 loss at San Francisco was Chicago's sixth loss in the last seven games, and the club is a woeful 2-13 since July 27.
The Cubs did put up a good fight in yesterday's loss, scoring once in the seventh inning and three times in the eighth to rally from a 7-3 deficit and tie the game. However, the Giants loaded the bases against rookie relieverAndrew Cashner (1-5) with one out in the ninth before pinch-hitter Andres Torres singled to center to knock in the deciding run.
Starlin Castro tied a career high with four hits for Chicago and singled in the tying run in the top of the eighth. The rookie shortstop is on a 10-for-20 tear over his last four games to raise his season average to .320.
Xavier Nady added a two-run double in the setback, with Kosuke Fukudome and Koyie Hill each collecting two hits and an RBI for the Cubs. Starting pitcher Randy Wells struggled in a five-inning stint, surrendering seven runs and serving up three homers.
"I can't keep putting the team in a hole like that when I go out and pitch," Wells said afterward. "It's not professional, it's not acceptable. I just chalk it up as a bad day and move on to the next one."
Already looking towards the future, Chicago will send out another young arm in today's opener, with Thomas Diamond set to make his third career start in the majors. The former Texas Rangers first-round draft pick has lost his first two assignments since being promoted from Triple A earlier this month, and struggled mightily his last time out.
Diamond's debut was impressive despite him coming out on the short end of a 4-3 verdict to Milwaukee on August 3, as the right-hander struck out 10 batters while allowing three runs in six innings. However, he labored through three frames in Sunday's 11-4 loss to the Reds and was tagged for five runs on four hits while issuing three walks.
The 27-year-old, who compiled a 5-4 record with a 3.16 ERA in 21 starts for Triple-A Iowa prior to his callup, will be pitching on the road for the first time in the big leagues tonight.
In-season acquisition Jake Westbrook gets the call for St. Louis tonight and will be taking the hill for the third time since coming over in a July 31 trade with Cleveland. The veteran righty was effective in each of his first two starts as a Cardinal, though he didn't get a decision in either game.
Westbrook held Houston to two runs on four hits and fanned seven over six innings in his initial outing in a St. Louis uniform, but his new team's bullpen failed to hold a late lead in an August 2 loss to the Astros. He then notched a season-best nine strikeouts while tossing seven innings of three-run ball against Florida this past Saturday.
Having spent virtually all his 10-year career in the American League, Westbrook has never before faced the Cubs. For the season, the 32-year-old is 6-7 with a 4.54 ERA over a combined 23 starts with the Indians and Cardinals.
These longtime foes have split six previous meetings this season, all of which were held in Chicago. The Cardinals won seven of nine bouts with the Cubs at Busch Stadium a year ago.