Cubs Will Face Several Challenges in NL Playoff Push

Erik SchultzCorrespondent IAugust 25, 2008

With a major-league best record of 80-50, after a 6-1 win over the Washington Nationals on Sunday, the Cubs are showing no signs of slowing down, heading into the final month of the regular season. 

With yesterday's win, the Cubs raised their win total to 15 this month. That matches the number of wins they had in June (15-12) and July (15-11). They are currently 15-6 in August, with a week left in the month. If the Cubs continue this level of play in September, they will push the 100-win mark.

The last time a Cubs team won 100 games was in 1935, when the season went only 154 games.

However, the road will get a lot tougher for the Cubs very quickly. If they do get to 100 wins, or more importantly, hold on to win the NL Central, they will certainly have earned it.

The Cubs' remaining schedule starts with a three-game series this week in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. Next, the Cubs come back to Wrigley for four games against the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Fightin' Phils are currently in a heated battle with the New York Mets for the NL-East lead and are now just a half game behind the Mets after a sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend. 

The first week of September will hopefully be a chance to catch their collective breaths before their difficult stretch run. They will host the Astros for three games beginning on Labor Day and then travel to Cincinnati to face the pesky Reds for three games over the following weekend.

Beginning with the series in Cincinnati, the Cubs will play 16 of their last 22 games away from the Friendly Confines. This will be a good test for a team that has been able to gradually improve their record as a result of winning seven out of every 10 games at Wrigley Field. 

After Cincinnati, the Cubs go to St. Louis for three games against the Cardinals, who are currently eight games behind the Cubs in the NL Central race and three-and-a-half games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL wild card.

This could be a chance for the Cubs to put the Cardinals away in the division race once and for all. However, with pitchers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter returning to the Cards' rotation, the Cubs could find themselves struggling to put up runs the way they've been used to in 2008. 

The Sept. 5-14 road trip ends with three more games against the Astros, in Houston. The last visit to Houston did not go well at all for the Cubs. They lost two out of three, and were held to just one run in each of the first two games. The Cubs cannot afford to have this type of offensive deficiency this time around, if they want to keep the Brewers (and Cardinals) at a distance in the NL Central.

With the Astros having crept above the .500 mark at 66-64, the Cubs will end the season with 19-straight games against teams with a winning record. After the road trip ends in Houston, the Cubs will return to Wrigley for three against the Brewers and then three more with the Cardinals, which will be the Cubs' final series at Wrigley for the regular season.

Winning two out of three in each of these series will be the expectation for the Cubs before heading back on the road for seven games to close out the season.

Once again, the Cubs will be challenged with a four-game series against an NL East contender: the Mets. The Mets will be looking to avoid their historic collapse of last season, when they blew a seven-game lead to the Phillies with just 17 games to play.

A split here would probably work well for the Cubs, before going into Miller Park to close the season with three more with the Brewers. 

This will be a huge series for both teams, if the Cubs have not clinched the division by this point. Even though the Cubs stormed in and out of Miller Park with a four-game sweep of the Brewers at the end of July, they don't want to be forced to duplicate that kind of performance to wrap up the division crown.

Manager Lou Piniella has had the Cubs playing good, consistent baseball throughout the entire 2008 season. There's no reason to think they will let up this late in the season, but the team will face a longer stretch of tough, important games unlike any they have seen so far.

It may give us a good idea of what to expect from the Cubs in the postseason, assuming they get there.