CHICAGO -- If the Chicago Cubs expect to secure another National League Central title, they are going to have to earn it.
Scoreboard-watching and hoping for the best are no longer sufficient as the season moves into the home stretch, with the St. Louis Cardinals arriving for a head-to-head weekend series that may go a long way toward determining the division winner.
The Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers (both 77-69) are tied for second, just three games behind the Cubs (80-66).
"We've got to take care of ourselves," Cubs left-hander Jon Lester said. "That's the big thing, you can't worry about other people. We're fine, we've just got to play good baseball, and that's what we've been doing."
Lester is mostly right. The Cubs are 37-21 since the All-Star break, and they have spent the past 51 days in first place in the division. However, they are just 5-6 in their past 11, including three consecutive losses at home to the Brewers in that span, balanced out by a three-game sweep of the New York Mets that ended Thursday.
Lester doesn't sound too worried.
"At the end of the day, all you have to do is get in," he said. "We'll figure it out from there. Once you get in, anything can happen."
After experimenting with minor league standout Jen-Ho Tseng as the starter in a 14-6 victory Thursday, the Cubs go back to their regular rotation Friday afternoon.
Right-hander John Lackey (11-11, 4.65 ERA) opposes Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez (11-10, 3.33 ERA) in the series opener.
In Lackey's latest start, on Sept. 8 against Milwaukee, he allowed a two-run, first-inning home run and then no more runs in his seven-inning outing. He gave up four hits and two walks while striking out nine.
Lackey is 2-1 with a 2.50 ERA in six career starts against the Cardinals, his former club. The Cubs have won each of his two starts this season against St. Louis, as he went 1-0 with a 3.46 ERA in those games. Lackey has six career quality starts against the Cards, all since last season.
Chicago is 9-2 in Lackey's last 11 starts. He is 6-2 with a 3.67 ERA in 10 starts since the All-Star break.
Martinez has six quality starts in his past seven outings. On Sept. 4, he threw a three-hit shutout at San Diego, and he followed up by allowing two runs in six innings ina no-decision against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday. "He's thrown, in my opinion, way better than his record shows," manager Mike Matheny said recently. "I think he's taken that next step as the pitcher we talked about this spring and the pitcher we expected him to be, the pitcher we gave our Opening Day start to.
"I don't think there is a team in the league that wants to face him."
Martinez is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in three starts against the Cubs this year. He is 1-1 with a 3.19 ERA in four career starts at Wrigley Field, and 4-3 with a 4.08 ERA in 22 career games (12 starts) vs. Chicago.
The Cubs hold an 8-4 lead in the season series vs. the Cardinals, including a 5-1 mark at Wrigley Field. The teams have seven meetings in the next 13games, including four games in St. Louis from Sept. 25-28.