ST. LOUIS – Baseball’s marathon schedule doesn’t lend itself to statement games, and nothing will be decided in early May, but the Cubs should find out what they’re made of here at Busch Stadium.
To be honest, the Cubs haven’t held up their end of the rivalry since winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. The St. Louis Cardinals continue to be the gold standard, with 11 playoff appearances since 2000 and 11 World Series titles overall.
The Cardinals (19-6) still have the best record in baseball after Monday night’s 10-9 victory over the Cubs in front of 41,981 and a national-TV audience. The Cubs have done a lot of things right in their deliberate rebuild, but nothing will be handed to them in the National League Central.
“I love this,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I want our guys to love this. I hate that I constantly bring up the past, but the Rays got better because they played in Yankee Stadium a lot and they played in Fenway Park a lot. That’s how these guys are going to get better.
“You got to get past that point where – I don’t want to say you’re intimidated by it – but you’re taken by it a bit. You’re not as comfortable with it. And then you start embracing it. You start looking forward to it. As our young guys start getting into this moment here, I really believe that we’ll be that group also.”
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The Cubs put up five runs in the first inning, and knocked out Carlos Martinez by the fourth, but the Cardinals are relentless. St. Louis does not quit. Mark Reynolds responded with a grand slam off Travis Wood in the first inning, and the Cubs bullpen could not stop the bleeding.
Help is on the way: Justin Grimm threw a scoreless inning for Triple-A Iowa on Monday and appears to be very close to rejoining the team after his right forearm injury.
James Russell is also trying to force the issue after getting released by the Atlanta Braves near the end of spring training and returning to the organization on a minor-league deal. The lefty has not allowed a walk through 9.2 scoreless innings with Iowa, notching 12 strikeouts.
The Cardinals have an assembly-line quality to them, still rolling even with ace Adam Wainwright missing the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon. The Cardinal Way won’t go away, which became a talking point during Cubs president Theo Epstein’s end-of-season news conference last year.
“How do you balance like admiration and contempt?” Epstein said. “I’m a Cub, so I have to hate the Cardinals, but I also admire the way they run their baseball shop…for basically the better part of a century.
“They’re really consistent. They make good decisions. All the way back to George Kissell, they teach the game the right way. They stay true to that vision of how to play Cardinals baseball, and they develop homegrown players who are loyal to it.
“I hate to say this on the record, but in some respects, we have to do a lot of things they do in order to be successful. On the other hand, I think we’re building something that has the chance to go toe-to-toe with them and surpass them. I think we have the chance to win this division, and win it on a consistent basis, and we’re going to need to in order to win the World Series.”
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Kris Bryant (four walks) and Addison Russell (2-for-5, home run) got their first tastes of the rivalry and should be fixtures for years to come. The Cubs are 13-11 – 5.5 games behind the Cardinals – and will get three more chances to make up some ground this week.
“I’m here to tell you, man: You want to play good teams,” Maddon said. “If you want young kids to get better, you want to play the best teams as often as you possibly can.”