ST. LOUIS — The Cubs don’t need to make a statement in early September when the computers give them a 90-something percent chance to make the playoffs.
The balance of power won’t shift overnight when the St. Louis Cardinals have 11 World Series flags flying here at Busch Stadium.
But the Cubs are playing with so much confidence right now — scoring the first 17 runs in this series and rolling to an 8-5 victory on Tuesday night — that Anthony Rizzo won’t concede the National League Central.
Can the Cubs still catch the Cardinals?
“I don’t see why not,” Rizzo said after blasting his 100th career homer, a two-run shot off Michael Wacha that set the tone in the first inning.
This probably won’t go viral the way Rizzo’s winning-the-division guarantee created so much buzz leading into Cubs Convention in January, when no one knew how all these new pieces would fit together.
But no one will be laughing at the All-Star baseman’s predictions now. The Cubs have cut the deficit to 6 1/2 games in the division and trail the Pittsburgh Pirates by two games for home-field advantage in the wild-card game.
“Obviously, the Pirates feel the same way,” Rizzo said. “We just got to keep playing baseball. We really can’t worry about what anyone else is doing. We just got to keep winning ballgames.”
The Cubs now hold a 9 1/2-game lead over the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants for the second wild card and expect to be in this playoff conversation for years to come.
A deep and versatile lineup knocked out Wacha — an All-Star this year and the 2013 NLCS MVP — after four innings, and the Cubs have so many possible combinations for mad-scientist manager Joe Maddon.
Javier Baez notched two hits and showed off his elite defensive skills at third base. Kyle Schwarber pinch-hit in the eighth inning and should be in Wednesday’s lineup (assuming no more setbacks after straining his rib cage last week).
A quality start from Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.59 ERA) eased some concerns about the back of the rotation (an eight-run lead helps). Neil Ramirez (abdominal soreness) came off the disabled list, adding a potential weapon for the bullpen.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Rizzo said. “Every day, we’re just getting more confident and more confident. The group we have up — that could be really scary.”
The Cubs have so much young talent that they can essentially turn Starlin Castro — who made three All-Star teams before his 25th birthday — into a part-time player.
Castro hit a three-run homer off Wacha that traveled 410 feet in the second inning and later added an RBI double. This isn’t how Castro envisioned the Cubs becoming relevant again — while losing his job to new franchise shortstop Addison Russell — but in his last 34 games he’s hitting .323 and playing with more of an edge.
“That’s the game,” Castro said. “I’ve been here for a long time. I don’t enjoy (sitting). I know I can play. But the team’s playing pretty good. And whatever is good for the team, I’ll be here. (The rest) doesn’t matter.
“Just try to keep focused and concentrate. Whatever happens, I’ll try to be (here for the team).”
Winning the division is a long shot, but the Cubs (80-57) still have four games left against the Cardinals and will be looking for the sweep on Wednesday with Jon Lester, their $155 million pitcher.
“They do it year in, year out,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That’s the point we have to get to. I like the fact that our guys want to play down here. They want the challenge that represents.
“But to really match these guys and to take it to their place means year in, year out. Not any one year, one series, one half-season, whatever.
“Our goal is to get to the place where we can look at these guys across the field and know that year in, year out we can go toe-to-toe.”
Closing the gap in this rivalry would always be a long, slow process, imperceptible at times. But this at least feels different for the Cubs — not drowning in a sea of red at Busch Stadium.
“We always came in here and we lost,” Castro said. “But now we come in here every day to compete and try to win games.”