CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs used a strong push to enter the All-Star break leading the National League Central Division. The St. Louis Cardinals, meanwhile, finished the first half on a skid that cost manager Mike Matheny his job.
So as the longtime rivals open a five-game series on Thursday at Wrigley Field, the Cubs -- who have won six of their last eight games -- hope to create some distance between themselves and the rest of the division while the Cardinals look to improve on what has been a disappointing season thus far.
The Cubs entered the break by sweeping the San Diego Padres and by scoring 18 runs in their final two victories of the series. While the offense has more than produced, the Cubs will need more consistency from their starting rotation, including Thursday's starter Kyle Hendricks.
The Cubs could look to add another starter before the trade deadline but need Hendricks to play the pivotal role he has in the past.
Hendricks (6-8, 3.92 ERA) has struggled throughout the season to find the edge that made him one of the National League's top pitchers over the past couple of seasons. Hendricks has been better of late and has started to find a groove in July, including in his last outing when he allowed a pair of runs and five hits in five innings in an 11-6 victory over the San Diego Padres.
He hopes Thursday's start is another step in the right direction against the Cardinals, again whom Hendricks is 3-2 with a 3.43 ERA in 11 career starts. In his one start against St. Louis this season, Hendricks gave up three runs on seven hits and four walks over six innings, and he got the win in that 6-3 victory on June 16.
"Something just clicked and I was able to repeat one (delivery) after another so that was a really good feeling,'' Hendricks told reporters after a July 9 start against the San Francisco Giants when he allowed just one run and five hits over 8 1/3 innings in his best start of the season. "(Catcher Willson Contreras) and I were just really on the same page, mixing pitches, keeping them off-balance, and that's the game I have to play."
It's the kind of game the Cubs need Hendricks to play as they push toward another postseason run.
"That's the Kyle we know and love," Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters after Hendricks' gem in San Francisco.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, will attempt to rebound after firing Matheny just before the break in the midst of a stretch in which they dropped four of their last six games.
St. Louis is currently just two games over. 500 and will see the Cubs a good deal over the next 10 days as interim manager Mike Shildt takes over for Matheny. After this five-game series, the Cardinals host the Cubs for three games July 27-29. What role the Cardinals will play as the trade deadline approaches has yet to be determined, which makes the upcoming stretch even more uncertain.
Still, the Cardinals remain optimistic.
"This team's going to bring good things to the table," pitcher Jordan Hicks said after his last outing.
On Wednesday, the Cardinals placed All-Star pitcher Miles Mikolas on paternity leave and recalled reliever Matt Bowman from Triple-A Memphis. Mikolas could return later in this weekend's series.
Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez (6-5, 3.08) will take the mound for Thursday's series opener. Martinez has won three of his last four starts but allowed three runs over six innings in a 9-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Friday.
Martinez is 4-4 in 25 career appearances (15 starts) against the Cubs.
He was the Cardinals' starting pitcher in the June 16 game against the Cubs when Hendricks got the win. Martinez allowed three runs on seven hits and six walks over five innings in that game and did not get a decision.