The New York Mets are in such a free fall – from 2015 National League champions to basically a glorified Triple-A team at the moment – that all the offensive fireworks at Wrigley Field became white noise.
The Cubs know that the Mets are no longer the litmus test for this lineup, feeling confident enough on Thursday night to start a pitcher making his big-league debut (Jen-Ho Tseng) and their fifth catcher (Taylor Davis) and cruise to a 14-6 win that kept them in control of the NL Central race.
Putting 39 runs on the board during this three-game sweep – following a lost weekend where they scored three runs in three games and got swept by the Milwaukee Brewers – temporarily changed the subject and increased their division lead by one game.
But it didn’t reveal much about whether or not these hitters will be ready for October – or a St. Louis Cardinals team that has Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn lined up for Friday, Saturday and Sunday in what should be an electric atmosphere.
“You got to beat better pitching to win this thing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You have to pitch better than good pitching. You got to take advantage. You got to score runs with outs. We’re scoring runs right now without homers sometimes, which is kind of nice to watch and see, execution-wise.
“We’re not going to score 15 runs, but we need to continue to execute good at-bats consistently.”
The Cubs have a three-game lead on St. Louis and Milwaukee, a magic number that is now 14 and 11 games left against those two division rivals that didn’t necessarily expect to be in this position.
The Cardinals were seven games under .500 in late June, thinking about a trade-deadline sale this summer and a 66-66 team by Aug. 30. That’s when they traded Mike Leake off their rotation to the Seattle Mariners for a minor-league infielder in a salary dump.
“There’s still a lot of good major-league players left behind,” Maddon said. “I think a lot of the resurgence with the Cardinals is they’re getting a lot of good bump from some young players. Maybe when you trade a guy like that, somebody else is unleashed or surfaces.
“They probably knew they had somebody good in mind – very good in mind – and by not overemphasizing that you’re keeping less pressure off the kid coming up. They probably expected a lot of this from the young guys they brought up.”
For all their identity issues, the Cardinals can pitch, ranking third in the NL in ERA (3.87) and tied for second in quality starts (78) and shutouts (12). The St. Louis pitching staff has limited the Cubs to a .217 batting average and a .669 OPS so far this season.
The Cubs have gone 8-4 against the Cardinals – while getting outscored 48-44 overall – and 10 of the 12 games have been decided by one or two runs.
“We’re really familiar,” said Anthony Rizzo, who now has 32 homers and 106 RBI. “We see Martinez, Wacha and Lynn all the time. We’ve seen them a lot over the last few years, so we know what they got. We know their bullpen. On the other side, they know what we have.
“That’s the good thing about rivalries like this – you know what you got – and then just go out there and play.”
That familiarity should breed contempt, more memorable moments and traffic jams all around Wrigleyville.
“Probably shouldn’t take Clark,” Maddon said. “Just go down Lake Shore.”