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Cubs will get their shot at Cardinals as rivalry heats up again

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Cubs will get their shot at Cardinals as rivalry heats up again

The St. Louis Cardinals are under investigation by the FBI and Justice Department. Their top prospect (Oscar Taveras) died in a car crash last October. Their Opening Day starter (Adam Wainwright) is out for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon. They still have the best record in baseball.

Whatever happens to the hackers who cyber-attacked the Houston Astros, the Cubs know the Cardinals won’t go away anytime soon, that they will eventually have to go through their biggest rival.

“They can’t lose right now,” reliever James Russell said. “It’s kind of ridiculous. It’s a big series. We need to go in there and do some damage.”

The Cubs traveled to St. Louis after Thursday’s disappointing 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The biggest crowd at Wrigley Field so far this year (41,498) watched $155 million ace Jon Lester give up four early runs and last only four innings. A four-game series that began with victories over Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke ended with the Cubs getting shut down by Carlos Frias and four relievers.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs still see Addison Russell as a big-league shortstop]

Russell made his big-league debut with the Cubs in 2010, when the window to contend slammed shut for Lou Piniella, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.

Russell got traded to the Atlanta Braves at last year’s deadline and returned to a completely different team this season. He understood how long it had been since the rivalry had some real juice, even though the Cubs began the day in third place in the National League Central, trailing the Cardinals by 7 1/2 games. Still, a 39-32 record would be good enough to make it as a wild card if the playoffs started today.

“Obviously, our main goal is to win the division,” Lester said. “We’re going to keep trying to plug along and do that. That starts tomorrow.”

The Cardinals are 26-7 at Busch Stadium, where weird things usually seem to happen to the Cubs amid the sea of red. The national media wants a piece of Joe Maddon, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. MLB Network is picking up Friday’s game, Fox wanted the rivalry for its Saturday window and ESPN chose Cubs-Cardinals for “Sunday Night Baseball.”

“Of course, when you’re playing them head up, you definitely want to make some noise,” Maddon said. “But I don’t want our guys to approach it any differently. I don’t want them to think that they have to play any harder or any better. Just go play.”

[MORE CUBS: Kris Bryant leaves Cubs-Dodgers finale with 'flu-like symptoms']

General manager Jed Hoyer, whose wife is from the St. Louis area, hears it from his in-laws whenever the Cubs play the Cardinals. It’s not as glamorous or as overhyped as the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. But Hoyer compared the Cardinals — with 11 World Series titles overall and 11 playoff appearances since 2000 — to what Theo Epstein faced when they took down the Evil Empire.

“I look at their presence as a huge positive,” Hoyer said. “It makes you keep your standards really high and makes you not cut corners because we’re not going to beat them with gimmicks. We’re not going to beat them by cutting corners. We’re going to have to beat them by being a great organization.

“That’s what we had with the Yankees. I think we were much better in Boston because the Yankees were in our division. If we hadn’t had them, we might not have kept our standards that high. We always felt like we had to win 95 games to make the playoffs.

“I kind of feel the same way here. It might not be 95, but it’s the same mindset of that’s what we have to develop to go head-to-head with them. It’s good. It pushes us.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cubs still have 13 games remaining against the Cardinals — and nine more against the Pittsburgh Pirates — and won’t pass the schedule’s halfway point until after the Fourth of July weekend.

“You always got to keep your eye (on the division),” Maddon said. “We’re going to keep getting better. I believe that. We’ve had kind of a mini-run, but not a real good run yet, and we’re definitely capable of that. As our young guys get more experience, I believe that’s all possible.

“The focus has to be winning the division. And then if you don’t, you still have a shot. But if you don’t want to aim high enough, man, you’re going to miss your target.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: