Could this be the launching point the St. Louis Cardinals needed to get back on top of the National League Central?
There’s no need to get overdramatic after Wednesday afternoon’s 7-2 loss at Wrigley Field, because the Cubs still had a 9.5-game lead over the Cardinals as they changed into their short shorts for the flight to Miami and Day 7 of a 24-games-in-24-days grind before the All-Star break.
But the Cardinals aren’t afraid of Jake Arrieta or magazine covers or the computer simulations ready to crown the division champions. FanGraphs gave the Cubs a 98-percent chance to win the division on Wednesday morning, with their playoffs odds set at 99.8 percent, and the local/national media fawning all over them.
With so much focus on what Theo Epstein’s front office should do at the trade deadline to prepare for October, the Cardinals just swept the best team in baseball at the moment, winning two tense one-run games before beating a Cy Young Award winner.
“We are a good team,” Cardinals outfielder/first baseman Brandon Moss said. “We don’t have to go out and make a statement saying: ‘Hey, look at us.’ We just have to play good baseball, play clean baseball. I don’t think there’s anybody in here that (thinks) we can’t compete with them.”
St. Louis made Arrieta look human during last year’s playoffs, scoring four runs against the hottest pitcher on the planet, in a game and a series the Cubs would ultimately win, changing the Little Brother vs. Big Brother dynamic to this rivalry.
The Cardinals (38-33) made Arrieta throw 106 pitches, taking advantage of a Ben Zobrist throwing error to score two runs (one earned) and knocking Arrieta out after five innings for the second time this season.
“That’s just the result of good at-bats,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “We talk about grinding the at-bat all the time. It’s not different against any other pitcher. (Aledmys) Diaz just kept going and going and fighting off good pitches – hard, soft, in and out. It just takes a toll, not only on the pitcher, but also the defense. That’s the kind of offensive approach we want as consistently as possible.”
Inside the cramped visiting clubhouse, the sound system blasted Queen’s “We Will Rock You” before a player grabbed the phone and changed it to Bob Marley’s “One Love.” The Cardinals had landed in Chicago after an 0-5 homestand against the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers – two more 2015 playoff teams – and a weekend of roster shuffling that included infielder/outfielder Kolten Wong getting called back up from Triple-A Memphis, where outfielder Randal Grichuk is now trying to hit the reset button.
“Guys showed up ready to play and brought it every day,” said winning pitcher Michael Wacha, who came into the game with a career 5.90 ERA against the Cubs. “Nobody was hanging their heads or anything. We knew that we were playing good baseball and had a chance to come in here and do a little damage.”
Remember, the Cardinals were 46-24 on June 23 last year – or almost exactly where the Cubs (47-23) are at this point – before looking like a team running on fumes by October.
“It’s big – it’s the only thing they could do,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We were there last year. The only thing we could do is win baseball games. They can’t worry about what we’re doing. We’re not going to worry about what they’re doing. Just win baseball games.
“To get back into a race, you have to beat a team that’s ahead of you. That’s what they did. It’s a championship team and they know how to win. You can never count them out.”
The Cubs and Cardinals will play 10 more times this season, but not again until the middle of August, when these two teams could look very different.
“We just got to really get back to what we expect of ourselves,” Matheny said. “Any time you beat a good team, it’s just a reinforcement. But you don’t dwell there very long. I don’t think there’s like this overwhelming theory: ‘OK, now we can go.’
“That’s not it. That looked like a good game, and now that looked like a good game and this one looked like it should. You just keep adding those together, with what you demand of yourselves, and if you have the talent, you’ll be on the right end of all this.”