What part of ‘white flag trade’ do these Cardinals not understand?

Who knew when the Cardinals started talking about the future with their Aug. 30 dump of veteran starter Mike Leake that by “future” they meant September?

“Maybe when you trade a guy like that, somebody else is unleashed,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

Or maybe several somebodies?

As the Cardinals arrive at Wrigley Field on Friday for a three-game weekend battle for first place in the National League Central, it has become clear that their players don’t have a firm grasp of the term “white-flag trade” or the meaning of “retooling for next year.”

Cardinals rookie Jose Martinez reacts after his go-ahead two-run hit in Thursday's victory over the Reds.

The day Leake was traded, with cash, to Seattle for a minor-leaguer, the Cardinals lost to fall to .500.

Since then, they’re 11-3, including a victory Thursday afternoon against the Reds that pulled them into a second-place tie with the idle Brewers, just three games behind the Cubs, who beat the Mets 14-6 Thursday night at Wrigley Field. The Cubs outscored the Mets 39-14 in the three-game sweep.

“There’s still a lot of real good major-league players left behind,” Maddon said of the Cardinals after that trade, which was part of a larger roster shuffle. “I think a lot of the resurgence with the Cardinals is they’re getting a lot of good bump from young players.

“When you do that, they probably knew they had somebody good in mind, very good in mind,” Maddon added. “By not overemphasizing that, you’re keeping pressure off the kid coming up. And they probably expected a lot of this from the young guys they brought up.”

Jack Flaherty, who was called up from the minors to replace Leake in the rotation, hasn’t looked especially good in three starts.

But another rookie in the rotation, Luke Weaver, has. And rookie shortstop Paul DeJong has provided a boost to the lineup since taking over the starting job. And rookie right-hander John Brebbia — who debuted the same day in May as DeJong — has been impressive in late-inning work.

The Cubs get the usual suspects from the Cards’ rotation this weekend: Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn. But it figures to be a much different team they’ll see than the one they’ve beaten in eight of 12 meetings this year.

“It’s normally difficult when you are facing new guys who are really good,” Maddon said. “We’ll see.”

They’ll know a lot about themselves and this division quickly. Three of the next four series involve their final seven games of the year against the Cardinals and their final four against the Brewers.

The Cubs are without former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta for this series because of a hamstring injury, but they hope his progress this week suggests a return for the early part of next week’s series against the Brewers. That would put him in line for a start in the final Cardinals series and, if necessary, a must-win start against the Reds on the final day or two of the season.

They’ll also open this series without shortstop Addison Russell (foot), although its not out of the question he could get his first at-bat in six weeks by the end of the weekend, likely off the bench.

But Maddon rested the simmering bat of Ben Zobrist, his leadoff man of late, on Thursday to have him ready for a full-strength weekend and lined up the best of the rest of his rotation for the Cardinals.

If it looks like the Cubs and Cards are playing role reversal from just two and three years ago, maybe it’s because they are, as a young, evolving Cardinals roster tries to chase down the defending champs and division favorites.

“It’s up to us now to really maintain what we’ve earned to this point. We’re very capable of doing that,” Maddon said. “I feel good about where we’re at right now. I like playing these kind of games a lot, and I think our players do.

“It’s good for Chicago. It’s good for St. Louis. It’s good for baseball.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

 

RELATED STORIES

Rookie Jen-Ho Tseng has rough debut, but Cubs rout Mets, focus on pen

Indians need extra innings but win 22nd consecutive game