The Reds and the Brewers are just in the way, squeezed in between the Cubs and Cards like helpless bar goers, trying to prevent an inevitable fistfight.
There they are, admirably, between St. Louis and Chicago in the division standings. And they’ll soon drift away with May, leaving us with the Cubs versus the Cardinals, or the now-mortal immortals versus the humbled-and-hungry challengers.
Both teams have warts, and that actually makes it engrossing.
As they battle this summer — be it literally in these three games this weekend, or figuratively in the standings — neither team is the regular-season machine we’ve previously seen, be it the 100-win Cards of 2015 or the 103-win Cubs of storied and now-historic 2016. Both these current teams are good, sure, but neither is flawless, so there will be drop-offs and drama.
Can you believe the Cubs are .500? Yep, 17-17, after being shut out Wednesday in, of all places, the pinball machine that is hitter-friendly Coors Field.
Now, a couple of key Cubs are wildly underperforming — the team is average without them playing at their career average. There’s Anthony Rizzo, hitting .218 with a wimpy .398 slugging percentage — in his past three seasons, he hit .285 with a .527 slugging mark. And there’s Ben Zobrist, the pride of Eureka, Ill., who hasn’t had an on-base percentage below .353 in the past six seasons, yet is currently middling around .320.
But one has to wonder if, finally, mercifully, the Cardinals’ pitching staff has caught up to the Cubs’ staff? Or, different wording, the Cubs staff has returned to planet Earth? Both John Lackey and Jake Arrieta have ERAs that look like Ivy League GPAs.
Still, it’s hard to look at the Cubs’ roster and believe that they’ll be .500 on June 11, or July 11. So of course, for St. Louis to stay standing in this fight, the Birds will have to play good baseball, and the reality is, you can only play the Braves and Marlins so many times.
But I will say, what’s stood out in most of these recent wins has been the way St. Louis has won — which is to say, the way St. Louis hasn’t blown it. Entering Wednesday, the Cards had committed only three errors in the previous six games. And there hadn’t been many conspicuous baserunning blunders. Instead, there has been this infusion of athleticism and defense, those two words married to one another this winter by the optimistic minister, John Mozeliak.
Of course, said athleticism and defense have come from two of the most unlikely sources — minor leaguers Tommy Pham and Mags Sierra — which is to say, it’s probably not sustainable. Still, Sierra! Magnificent. The speed and glove are big-league ready; the budding bat is being swung by adrenaline.
What’s captivating about Sierra is his baserunning accomplishments are off-the-grid. Like, we watch baseball with the expectation that some guys can accomplish such-and-such feat, and others can’t, but he’s making plays that no current Cardinal can do. It’s as if he’s playing a different game. Twice, we saw it Tuesday, his feat with his feet, and the Cards won their most improbable game of the season. And here’s thinking that Sierra, who couldn’t drink Busch the day the season began at Busch, will help win a September game for the Cards as a call-up. The now-21-year-old is on the 40-man roster, and if the Cards can stay in the race, here’s wondering (daydreaming?) if Sierra will make a game-changing play on the basepaths, a la Adron Chambers in 2011 or Miguel “Country” Mejia in 1996.
But if the Cards want September to be meaningful, they’ll have to win the way they were built to win. And that’s with OBP. Dexter Fowler of the Cardinals will have to stir things up at leadoff like Dexter Fowler of the Cubs.
That two-spot better be earned, grasped, seized — not plugged. And let’s take a moment to appreciate the world according to Carp, that of painstakingly taking pitches, earning walks and timely thwacks. In the past 30 days, No. 3 hitter Matt Carpenter is fourth in the league in OBP (.461). This season, he’s first in the league in highest percentage of pitches taken. And one more for you — this season, only six National League players have a higher exit velocity on batted balls than Carp. A heck of a recipe to cook up an All-Star nod.
The Cardinals return to Busch a rejuvenated bunch. They’ll meet up with a Cubs team trying to resuscitate its identity.
And sure enough, the Cubs will trot out a minor leaguer, Eddie Butler, to pitch Friday against the fellow pitching perhaps the best in the National League, Mike Leake.
I’m giddy about this Cards-Cubs weekend. It’s a harbinger for the summer. And last season, with the Cubs’ Secretariat-like start, the games weren’t as meaningful.
But the next time the two clubs meet up — June 2-4 at Wrigley Field — we’ll have a way better gauge on if this will be a fair fight.