A season-long Cubs-Cards division battle sounds fun. Where do we sign?
ST. LOUIS — Show of hands: Anybody remember the Cubs’ kind-of-hot start to the 2016 season?
Oh, really? So that’s every single one of you, then?
Come to think of it, there was nothing ‘‘kind of’’ about it. By the time the Cubs reached 25-6, they had tied a 109-year-old record for the fastest start in franchise history. Even better, they already had buried the defending National League Central champion Cardinals in the standings.
OK, so that’s a bit of hyperbole; the lead over the Cardinals was only nine games. Still, the number felt incredibly large for early May. Like, circus-freak-show large.
Indeed, the Cubs tore through the entire season essentially unchallenged.
‘‘Man, it’s great when you have a really good start of the season like that,’’ veteran catcher Miguel Montero recalled. ‘‘That’s an easy way to play. As a hitter, you feel like you can close your eyes and get a hit. You feel like everything is easy. Everything is beautiful.’’
And then there’s the view from the business end of such excellence. Relatively speaking, everything for the 2016 Cardinals was pretty much wall-to-wall miserable. On the field, they too often were closer to the Keystone Cops than to the so-called ‘‘Cardinal Way.’’ Off it, they weren’t the most harmonious group. Fans waited (and waited) for a momentous surge that never came.
The experience of being left in the dust by the warm, cuddly, feel-good Cubs — the gap between first and second place was 17½ games by the end — informed many of the decisions and philosophical shifts made by the Cardinals in the offseason. They left spring training thinking they could reclaim the division crown.
A 3-9 stumble to begin the season could have been cause for dismay. Instead, the Cardinals blasted back with a 16-5 stretch — including nine road victories in a row — before their 3-2 loss Friday to the Cubs in the opener of a three-game series.
A momentous surge? Maybe so.
‘‘You know the pieces are there, and to see them kind of come together closer to what we’re looking for, it is affirming,’’ Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. ‘‘It’s something to show the guys, ‘Hey, we’ve got what it takes.’ ’’
What it takes to hang with the Cubs all season long, that is. There’s no question the defending World Series champs are the current barometer around these parts.
‘‘With the talent we have, if we keep our heads down and keep playing the game, the results are going to be there,’’ Matheny said.
It sure doesn’t hurt that the Cubs entered the series with a .500 record. That’s hardly the mark of a ‘‘runaway train,’’ a term manager Joe Maddon says he never expected would apply to the 2017 team.
Then again, as comfortable as the 2016 regular season was for the Cubs — and as unremarkable as this one has been thus far — perhaps a playoff-caliber Cardinals team is exactly what they need right now. Whatever it takes to fire up the engines.
‘‘I’m all for a good race,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘I think it’s good for our souls and it’s good for the industry of baseball in general.’’
Could a momentous surge of the Cubs’ own be in the offing?
‘‘I anticipate us to have the same kind of a run,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘For right now, we have not played our best baseball. We’re playing .500. We’re not even close to having played our best baseball. My bigger concern would’ve been had we been playing well and still been stuck in this spot.’’
Playing poorly in nearly every department but still winning as much as they’re losing? Talk about first-world baseball problems. But the Cardinals are too good to let the Cubs get away with that for long. And isn’t that as it should be?
A good race doesn’t sound so bad at all.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.