ST. LOUIS – This is the type of environment that normally gives a young team nightmares and causes so much anxiety for Cubs fans watching back home on TV and venting their frustrations on Twitter.
But this was about as stress-free as it gets against the best team in baseball, the Cubs in cruise control during Monday afternoon’s 9-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
If Labor Day is a significant mile marker for the 162-game marathon, the Cubs are now 79-57 and within two games of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the chance to host a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field. What a way to kick off an 11-games-in-11-days road trip through St. Louis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
“I don’t know if anyone’s really just settling on the second wild card,” winning pitcher Dan Haren said afterward. “I think guys seem to want to push for more.”
Message sent. It started at the top with Dexter Fowler, who led off the game by driving Lance Lynn’s 92-mph fastball out to right field for his 17th home run in what’s becoming a great platform year for the centerfielder.
Manager Joe Maddon has a simple reminder for Fowler before each at-bat: “You go, we go.” Fowler added a two-out, two-run double in the second inning, pushing his OPS to .986 since the All-Star break.
That’s part of the bigger story for a Cubs team that got swept here in late June, scoring four runs in 28 innings and inspiring Maddon to invite Simon the Magician to perform inside Citi Field’s visiting clubhouse before the next game against the New York Mets.
“Our team’s entirely different,” Maddon said. “We’re playing with a lot more confidence. We believe a lot more that we can do this now. It’s one thing to think you can – and another thing to believe that you can. I think we’re at the point where we believe that we can do this.”
“We’re totally different,” Fowler said. “The guys are maturing. The young guys coming up, they know they’re supposed to be here. And they’re playing the part.”
In front of another sellout crowd (45,986), the Cubs knocked out Lynn (11-9, 3.12 ERA) with one out in the third inning and showed why they are a force to be reckoned with in October – and potentially for years to come as a rising power in the National League.
By the time Addison Russell’s three-run homer flew 402 feet over the wall in left-center field, the Cubs led 8-0 in the third inning. At the age of 21, the new franchise shortstop has 13 homers and 24 doubles for a win-now team.
“It’s definitely a confidence-booster,” Russell said. “This city is definitely behind this team (here and) we definitely have to jump out. And whenever we’re ahead, we just have to bury it.”
That gave Haren some breathing room, allowing him to be aggressive and throw strikes in what turned out to be his best start in a Cubs uniform since that July 31 deadline trade with the Miami Marlins.
Haren (9-9, 3.73 ERA) – who was originally drafted by St. Louis way back in 2001 – accounted for seven shutout innings and even chipped in with a single, a run scored and a sacrifice fly on a day where the Washington Nationals dropped to 8.5 games back in the wild-card race.
The Cubs have five games remaining against the Cardinals but still trail their biggest rival by 7.5 games in the division.
“It seems like a lot of games,” Haren said. “The best way to just look at it is: Try to win as many as possible and see what happens. I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’re scoreboard-watching. But it’s the time of year where you’re definitely checking on how the Nationals do, the Pirates do.
“We play ‘em enough to where…if we go on a really good run, we could do something.”
Maddon’s one-day-at-a-time mantra doesn’t leave that much room for statement games, but he understood the Cubs would have to do something different after losing six of their first seven games at Busch Stadium this season.
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“We have to learn to play well in this venue,” Maddon said. “You have to become more comfortable in the venue. And then you play your normal game there. And then you compete with this team.”
ESPN kept the Cardinals up late on Sunday night, forcing them into a quick turnaround with Monday’s first pitch at 1:15 p.m. Lynn hadn’t pitched since Aug. 29 while dealing with a sprained ankle. A lineup already missing Matt Holliday and Matt Adams had Kolten Wong as a late scratch with a calf issue and Randal Grichuk in a limited role coming off an elbow injury.
The Cubs will find out if St. Louis is vulnerable.
“You got to get the team in front of you first before you can really focus on the next one,” Maddon said. “Of course, I’ve said from the beginning that was our objective – to win the division. But you got to catch the group in front of you and then you move on to the next one. Let’s just play tomorrow like we played today.”