Cubs

Cardinals remain confident despite 2-1 series deficit

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Cardinals remain confident despite 2-1 series deficit

The St. Louis Cardinals don’t seem too concerned about their current predicament, even on the verge of elimination.

The status of their catcher — and heart and soul — is uncertain, the Cubs offense is red hot and Wrigley Field sounds more like a rock concert than a baseball game. But none of the Cardinals wavered late Monday night after an 8-6 loss to the Cubs in Game 3 of the National League Divisional Series.

Veteran John Lackey pitches next for St. Louis, which trails the best-of-five series 2-1. He’ll face the Cubs’ Jason Hammel in Game 4 at 3:37 p.m. on Tuesday.

“I like our odds when our backs are against the wall,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “This is the kind of team that we've had all season long, regardless of what anybody else thinks, regardless of odds, regardless of who we're stacked upagainst.”

[MORE CUBS: Yadier Molina's thumb injury flares up in Cubs-Cardinals]

Don’t mistake their swagger for stupidity — the Cardinals realize how tall a task they face. It’d be hard to ignore the six home runs their pitchers allowed to six different Cubs hitters on Monday night. They’re also uncertain about catcher Yadier Molina, who re-aggravated a thumb injury during a fourth inning at-bat and was lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth.

But they still possess the confidence only a 100-win season in baseball’s toughest division can produce.

“I love us,” said Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward, who homered and doubled in four at-bats. “We don’t ever stop. Ahead or behind, we don’t ever stop playing the game. We’re going to put this one behind us just like the first game we won and just like we did (Saturday) when we lost.”

They also have experience to lean on.

“It never hurts,” pitcher Adam Wainwright said.

[MORE CUBS: Cardinals Game 4 starter John Lackey: Past experience is irrelevant]

While experiences means squat if they don’t execute on Tuesday, Wainwright thinks it can help Cardinals players tune out the noise. This isn’t the first time the Cardinals have faced adversity. Though their season could end within 18 hours, Wainwright said his teammates don’t feel any panic.

“I don’t feel like we have to play harder than we’ve played all year right now,” Wainwright said. “We’ve been in this situation before. We know we have to come out and play a good ballgame. When you simplify things like we can here — we don’t worry about the situation, the games, up or down, we’re going to come out and execute. And if everybody comes out and executes tomorrow, we’re going to be just fine.”

Matheny liked the way the Cardinals rallied twice in Monday’s loss to keep the Cubs on their toes.

While they didn’t win, the Cardinals scored four runs off Jake Arrieta, the same amount he had allowed combined in his previous nine starts. Heyward’s sixth-inning homer got St. Louis within a run, and Stephen Piscotty’s round-tripper in the ninth made it a two-run game. Matheny expects to see more of the same confidence on Tuesday.

“This team just continues to fight, and that's not something that you lose regardless of where you stand, and I'm excited to watch them come out and compete,” Matheny said. “That's what this team does well and what they've done all season. Tomorrow is the kind of game where they'll come out with a lot of heart ready to do their thing.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion. 

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.