When the Cardinals departed St. Louis for Chicago late this week, they brought with them a looming -- if unspoken -- question: Will they return with the same roster? A three-game weekend series with the Cubs, which begins with a 3:05 p.m. CT first pitch Friday at Wrigley Field, marks the start of a six-game road trip that will take them to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
The Cards, just 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers in the National League Central, could seek an upgrade for a second-half push to defend their NL title. The cellar-dwelling Cubs face a similar roster uncertainty, but only because they're so far out of the race they could deal with an eye toward the future.
"We're in last place, so all of [the] work remains ahead," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said this week. "What we've done is put ourselves in a position to make a lot of interesting decisions going forward and hopefully have two of the most important currencies in the game in young players and available payroll dollars and go make some hay."
On Friday, though, all eyes will be focused on right-hander Joe Kelly and lefty Travis Wood, two starting pitchers who have been trending in opposite directions of late.
Kelly (2.84 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) is fresh off the best start of his injury-dampened season. He tossed seven innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers on Saturday, his second start since returning from an injured left hamstring.
It marked a considerable improvement over his three-inning, six-run effort against the Brewers before the All-Star break. Kelly said he changed his mechanics for his outing against the Dodgers so as not to tip pitches, which he thought he was doing against Milwaukee.
"It's a good start," Kelly said. "I'm going to keep doing [the different motion] and do it as much as I can to just try and mix up pitches and hide stuff better."
Kelly allowed Chicago one unearned run in six innings on April 11, but Wood hasn't fared as well against St. Louis. In 13 innings spanning two starts -- both Cub wins -- the Cardinals reached him for eight runs (six earned) on 11 hits and three walks.
Wood has particularly struggled the last month-plus. In his most recent six starts, he owns a 6.82 ERA and 1.96 WHIP while allowing opponents a .328 average. His ERA on the season has climbed to 5.12 from 4.48 in that time.
"It's not like I"m sailing balls all over the place, I'm just missing," Wood said after his last start, in which he didn't escape the sixth inning against the D-backs. "I really want to go out and give seven, eight innings as strong as I can every time, and so far it hasn't been happening. Like I said, I promise we'll get there."
Cardinals: Miller to start Saturday as Martinez heads to 'pen
Shelby Miller's rest period is over.
That's the decision the Cardinals made this week when they announced Miller, who has been available in relief so far during the second half in an effort to lessen his workload, will move back to the rotation and start Saturday against the Cubs. Carlos Martinez will go back to the bullpen.
"I think we accomplished what the goal was from the beginning of 'Let's get him some rest,'" manager Mike Matheny said. "He's had a nice little period here to get himself right and strong and feeling good. Now we have to get him out on the mound and watch him get the consistency."
Miller has pitched one inning since his last start on July 10 -- two weeks ago. At 110 innings on the season, he is on pace to edge out his career-high total of 173 1/3 from last season. Martinez, meanwhile, made seven starts after joining the rotation in mid-June.
Cubs: Struggling Schierholtz has found success against Kelly
Kelly has done well against the Cubs during his three Major League seasons -- he owns a 2.19 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in eight games (five starts) -- but excuse him if he's a little wary of one Chicago batter in particular.
Nate Schierholtz is a career .462 hitter (6-for-13) with three doubles against Kelly. That includes a 3-for-4, one-RBI effort in April.
Lately, though, Schierholtz has struggled to a degree that has triggered a decrease in playing time. He was a .202/.248/.310 hitter entering the Cubs' game Wednesday against the Padres, which was just his second start in five games to open the second half.
Schierholtz's most recent extra-base hit was July 2.
• This is the first of 10 more games between the clubs this season. That represents more than 15 percent of both teams' remaining schedules. The Cardinals lead the season series, 5-4.
• An 0-for-4, three-strikeout performance Tuesday was the last straw, for now, for Mike Olt. The Cubs demoted him to Triple-A Iowa to try to work thing outs. Olt, who leads NL rookies with 12 homers, is hitting .139/.222/.353 with a strikeout rate of 45 percent.
• Luis Valbuena (.246/.331/.408) will get the majority of time at third base.
• The Cubs' plan is to have Arismendy Alcantara and Emilio Bonifacio flip flop between second base and center field. Manager Rick Renteria said he'll likely keep Bonifacio as the leadoff man even though Alcantara could also be inserted at the top of the lineup. "Is it possible [Alcantara] can lead off? Absolutely," Renteria said.