PHOENIX -- As the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks wrap up a series Sunday between two teams that could be headed for the postseason, they're both looking ahead to the final six-plus weeks of the season.
And looking back at the same team: the St. Louis Cardinals.
The World Series champion Cubs, surging since the All-Star break, have long since blown past former NL Central leader Milwaukee to take the division lead, erasing a 5 1/2 game deficit at the break and picking up 8 1-2 games on Milwaukee during that time.
The Diamondbacks, despite not being able to win more than four games in a row since June 24-27, have maintained a healthy lead for months as they try to gain one of the NL's two wild card spots.
But the resurgent Cardinals have been gaining ground on both teams for more than a week now, and that's changing the dynamics of both the NL Central race and the wild card race. The Cubs and Cardinals go into Sunday's games in a virtual tie for first place following St. Louis' 6-5 win over Atlanta on Saturday night and the Cubs' 6-2 loss at Arizona.
"It's never easy," Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said about a division race that's been tightened by St. Louis' eight-game winning streak. "It's never easy. Even last year (when the Cubs won the World Series), it wasn't easy."
The Diamondbacks, losers of three in a row and five of six before winning Saturday, are currently immersed in one of the toughest stretches of their season, and it's showing. They've dropped three of five to at home since Tuesday to the Dodgers, owners of the majors' best record, and the defending champion Cubs. Up next for four games -- two in Chase Field and two in Houston -- are the Astros, who own the American League's best record.
Later this month, the Dodgers -- didn't they just leave? -- return for three more games.
The Diamondbacks are 12-15 since the All-Star break and 13-20 since the Fourth of July, but manager Torey Lovullo doesn't sense any change in the mood of a team that's been surprisingly good most of the season.
Arizona, which leads the Cardinals and Cubs by 4 1/2 games for the NL's second wild card spot, got a lift Saturday by beating Jon Lester, consistently one of the NL's best starting pitchers.
"I spend a lot of my time watching guys when things are going right, things are going wrong, watching body language," Lovullo said. "I don't think there's any panic or concern. I think we're in a good spot.
"If you told me on the first day of spring training that we'd be 4 1/2 up in wildcard race, sign me up, let's roll."
The Diamondbacks badly need another strong start from right-hander Zack Godley (5-4, 2,94 ERA) as he opposes Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta (11-8, 3.83 ERA) on Sunday, especially with the Astros and their 71-45 record up next.
Godley, a former member of the Cubs organization, is 2-0 with a 1.37 ERA in his last three starts, allowing three earned runs in 19 2/3 innings, and is 2-1 with a 3.22 ERA in seven starts at home this season.
Godley beat the Cubs and Arrieta 3-0 at Wrigley Field on Aug. 2, giving up three hits and striking out five over six scoreless innings. He is 1-1 with a 5.59 ERA overall in two starts vs. Chicago.
Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner, hopes to keep the Cubs' recent road run going; they've won 13 of their last 17 away from Wrigley Field. Arrieta is 4-2 with a 2.18 ERA in seven starts since July 2, despite that Aug, 2 loss, and beat the Giants 5-3 on Monday while allowing three runs in 6 1/3 innings.
Arrieta is 2-3 despite his 2.95 ERA in six career starts against Arizona, lasting seven innings (two runs, one earned) against them at Wrigley earlier this month.
Arrieta isn't exactly the kind of pitcher a struggling team likes facing, even at home, but Lovullo still believes his players are, for the most part, taking the same kind of swings, making the same kind of pitches and preparing the way they did when they were 22 games over .500 in June.
"I think the guys are fighting and grinding and playing the game the way they should, and I'm OK with that," Lovullo said. "We're in a little bit of a rut. This is when we need to link together, band together, trust one another, continue to trust we're going to come out the other side. Things are OK."
Then he paused, and repeated himself, "Things are OK."
"I know our guys are a little bit frustrated right now, and they should be because they care," Lovullo said.