Despite 100 wins, Cardinals couldn't slow Cubs' momentum


Despite 100 wins, Cardinals couldn't slow Cubs' momentum

The night of July 8 feels like ages ago after the Cubs blasted the St. Louis Cardinals out of the National League Division Series in four games.

The Cubs had the Cardinals on the ropes that unseasonably chilly day at Wrigley Field, leading 5-4 heading into the top of the ninth. A win would’ve secured a series victory and firmly stamped the Cubs as contenders in the NL Central. Instead, Jhonny Peralta ripped Pedro Strop’s two-out, two-strike pitch into the left field basket for a ninth-inning, go-ahead, two-run home run that served as a reminder of why the Cardinals haven’t missed the playoffs since 2010.

St. Louis went on to win 100 games and its third consecutive division title, teeing them up to — somewhat unfairly, given the 90-win New York Mets and 92-win Los Angeles Dodgers — face the winner of the NL wild card game. “The Cardinal Way” meant sustaining injuries to ace Adam Wainwright, outfielder Matt Holliday and first baseman Matt Adams didn’t negatively affect the club’s win total at the end of the year.

But something changed when the Cubs rolled into Busch Stadium on Labor Day. The Cubs scored 20 runs and took two of three games that week, then over a weekend at Wrigley Field later in September plated 16 runs in another series win. As it turns out, those six games were a sign of things to come in the postseason.

“I think they've been playing with a lot of confidence, and obviously they finished the season that way,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “There are a lot of things going in a good direction for that team. You've got a lot of talent, no question. You had some pitching that stepped up tremendously, and everybody kind of finding their role and some of the younger guys kind of taking those big roles.

“You could see that this team was going in the right direction and feeling good about themselves heading into the playoffs.”

[MORE: Cubs finish Cardinals with Javier Baez starring in Addison Russell's absence]

While the Cardinals absorbed those key injuries in the spring and summer, losing catcher Yadier Molina and right-hander Carlos Martinez down the stretch turned out to be difficult to overcome. Molina in Game 3 aggravated the sprained left thumb he suffered Sept. 20 when Anthony Rizzo slid into his glove, so the Cardinals were forced to play Game 4 without their seven-time All-Star catcher. Veteran right-hander John Lackey was ineffective on short rest in Game 4 as well — and maybe this series would’ve gone differently had Martinez, who faded a bit down the stretch but still had a 3.01 ERA, been available.

Instead, after beating the guy the Cubs spent $155 million to lure to Clark and Addison in Game 1, Cardinals pitching allowed 10 home runs and the offense couldn't keep up over their final three games of the season.

“It was just unfortunate,” Matheny said. “This is a team that was as impressive to watch from day one as any team I've ever been around, and just a collection of skill and fight and character and just all the way across the board from the veteran guys leading to the young guys figuring out a way to contribute. It was a special group.

“You know, that's always hard to walk away from.”

The Cardinals will return to St. Louis and attempt to figure out what went wrong over four games when so much went right over 162. Matheny’s decision-making can be nit-picked — like why left-hander Kevin Siegrest, against whom left-handed batters had an .811 OPS in the regular season, was allowed to give up game-clinching home runs to Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber Tuesday — and the Cardinals’ inability to beat Jake Arrieta despite forcing his shortest start since June can be lamented.

But the Cardinals saw the Cubs building momentum as the regular season progressed, and perhaps there’s room in the discussion for allowing that a good team was beaten by another good team in a short series.

[MORE: Baby boomers again power Cubs' win over Cardinals, berth in NLCS]

Welcome to life in the NL Central, where the Cardinals, Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates were arguably the three best teams in baseball this year. The Cubs dispatched the Pirates in the wild card game, then needed four games to knock out the division champions and demonstrate that, like the Cardinals, they deserve to be considered among baseball’s elite.

“They proved it this series,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “The young guys came up, they stepped up. They did what they needed to do to win. Seeing the talent they have, you realize we’re in for a tough series and the Pirates are the same. It’s going to be like this next year.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


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.