Forget the wild card races for a few moments. Have a good gander at the National League Central. Where the Cardinals and the Cubs entered Thursday’s play numeros uno and two-o in the division.
With a measly three games between them in the standings. And, count them, seven games yet to play against each other including three to end the regular season. You wanted an honest-to-goodness rivalry to take the season to the wire? You’ve got it now in the NL Central.
The Red Sox’s dissipation thanks mostly to their starting pitching means no Yankee-Red Sox duel to the death to finish. The American League Central is down to the Twins and the Indians with four games between them in the standings, but such as it is their rivalry seems more like a Friday night bowling league. There’s no blood feud there. Yet.
The western divisions in both leagues are so locked up that both champions-in-waiting (the Astros and the Dodgers) left their age-old or mere territorial rivals behind as far as New York City’s D train leaves 205th Street in the north Bronx when it arrives near Coney Island.
The eastern divisions are sewn up snugly enough, though there’s a vague potential for all-out war if, somehow, by some heretofore unseen alchemy, the Nationals and the Mets end up in the wild card game with one of them getting to deal with the Braves in a division series.
And the wild card rumbles are enough fun, even if you think there’s something just a little out of whack with sitting on the edge biting your nails to the nubs over the thrills, spills, and chills of seeing who’s going to end up . . . in second or even third place but with a postseason ticket regardless.
No, the real blood feuding resumes Thursday night in Wrigley Field. Which will be the Friendless Confines if you’re a Cardinals fan.
Where there’s about as much love or respect for the Cardinals as there was between Frank Hamer and Bonnie & Clyde. Where the legend may still hold that one season’s antics so enraged Hall of Famer Bob Gibson that he begged his manager to pitch him out of turn just for the pleasure of using the Cubs for target practise an extra time or two.
Bad enough the Cardinals’ Thursday starter Jack Flaherty entered as one of the National League’s hottest second-half pitchers. Worse: the Cubs only hit .168 against him with a .297 on-base percentage. Their best swinger against Flaherty, Anthony Rizzo, is down for the count with an ankle injury. Without the only Cub who hits higher than .250 against him—and Rizzo’s hit .533—Flaherty can start the game like a man sinking into a delicious hot tub.
Especially because his Cubs starting opponent, Kyle Hendricks, is a Cardinals pinata by comparison. The Redbirds have hit .249 with a .309 on-base percentage against Hendricks lifetime. The big swinger? Marcell Ozuna, who brings a 1.124 OPS against Hendricks lifetime into the game. Hendricks can’t exactly think about starting in a hot tub. He might have an early shower in which to think afterward if a) he’s not careful and b) his changeup betrays him.
But all September long the Cubs are a game over .500 and the Cardinals, two. But the Cubs just dropped a pair to the lowly but feisty Reds and woke up Thursday morning the winners of six out of their last ten compared to the Cardinals winning five of their last ten.
What a difference a few years makes. As ESPN reporter Jesse Rogers observes, not so long ago the Cardinals had issues on the basepaths, in the field, and out of the bullpen, but that was then and this is now: it’s the Cubs who now lead the league in outs on the bases, sit second in the league in errors (losing Rizzo doesn’t hurt at the plate alone), and haven’t converted more than 58 percent of their bullpen save opportunities.
And his colleague Bradford Doolittle observes that this year’s Cardinals do all the little things right but seem to think the big things are too big, while this year’s Cubs do the big things right while the little things seem not beyond but unknown to them by comparison. Tonight they’re going to test Rizzo’s ankle by letting him play first base. Think the Cardinals might test him the hard way with a few bunts?
There’s also that pesky location factor. The Cubs finish the home portion of their regular season this weekend before playing six on the road to finish, and their 31-44 road record to this point doesn’t exactly bode for getting their kicks on Route 66 or anywhere else. The Cardinals aren’t exactly road hogs, either, but their 36-38 road record when they woke up Thursday morning could turn just as easily into a 40-38 road record when they go to bed Sunday night.
Doolittle thinks Cardinal fans, despite their long standing reputation as being among baseball’s best, suddenly have “a sense of impending doom . . . A lot of people I talk to seem raw that the team didn’t trade for another starter at the deadline, even though their rotation has been lights-out ever since . . . They want to believe, but they aren’t all the way there yet. If the Cards flop against the Cubs, it could get a little ugly in St. Louis.”
Since 2017 the Cubs have actually been 20-5 against the Cardinals in the Confines. What does he think it’s going to get in Chicago if the Cubs flop against the Cardinals this weekend—pretty?
A one-time Cub broadcaster who devolved to become an American president once proclaimed morning in America. Just because it’s still only three years, just about, since their last World Series conquest doesn’t mean Cub Country would proclaim morning in America if the Cubs plotz this weekend.