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.
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.”
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.”
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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.”