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Cardinals host Cubs in must-win situation

ST. LOUIS -- As the champagne and beer flew around (and on) him Wednesday night, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant was asked if he had thought about the team's National League Division Series playoff matchup with the Washington Nationals.

"I haven't thought about it yet," he said, laughing. "But I know they've got a good team and will present us with challenges."

Those challenges can wait until next weekend, though. First comes the final four games of another playoff season, starting Thursday night with the finale of a four-game series against the desperate St. Louis Cardinals.

While Chicago (89-69) punched its third straight postseason ticket with a 5-1 victory over St. Louis on Wednesday that wrapped up the NL Central crown, the Cardinals are teetering on the edge of missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

The Cardinals (82-76) trail Colorado (86-73) by 3 1/2 games for the NL's second wild-card spot. Any loss by St. Louis, or Rockies win this weekend against the Los Angeles Dodgers, sends the Cardinals to exit interviews and tee times Monday.

Manager Mike Matheny was conceding nothing after the latest loss, though.

"I didn't watch," he said of the Cubs' celebration. "Usually when I watch, we don't have any more games to play. We're getting ready for tomorrow. When I watch in the playoffs, it's because our season is over. Our season is not over."

To keep it from being over after Thursday night, St. Louis will give the ball to a guy who might be making his final start for the team.

Lance Lynn (11-8, 3.47 ERA) is coming off the worst outing of his career Saturday night in Pittsburgh, where he allowed eight runs and got only two outs in an 11-6 defeat. It was a shocking performance for the team's most reliable starter this year.

Lynn, a free agent at season's end, is 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA in 18 career games (17 starts) against Chicago. He has faced the Cubs three times this year without a decision, pitching to a 4.30 ERA.

The team Lynn faces in this game could be markedly different from the one that wrapped up its second consecutive division title. Clubs usually don't play their regulars in the game after clinching a playoff spot, and with Washington already assured of home-field advantage in the NLDS, the Cubs will probably trot out a lot of reserves and September call-ups.

However, they are still planning to start Kyle Hendricks (7-5, 3.14 ERA), and he has been pretty tough on the Cardinals during his career. Hendricks pitched a season-high 7 2/3 innings in his last outing against them Sept. 16, earning a 4-1 victory.

What's more, Hendricks' last start at Busch Stadium almost produced history. He took a no-hitter to the ninth inning last September before Jeremy Hazelbaker's pinch-hit homer ended that bid, but Hendricks still won 4-1.

He is 2-2 with a 3.62 ERA in nine career starts versus St. Louis.

The right-hander is coming off a solid six innings Saturday in Milwaukee, where he scattered eight hits and allowed a run with a walk and six strikeouts. It was the eighth straight quality start for Hendricks.

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