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If Cardinals series is test, Cubs bullpen flunked

Not even Anthony Rizzo's third homer of the season, or his seventh steal (shown here) -- setting a career high -- were enough to help the Cubs beat the Cardinals Monday.

ST. LOUIS – Barely eight months ago, the Cubs’ two cornerstone All-Stars, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, both stood in this same room talking about “putting our stamp on our division” and showing the rival Cardinals that “we’re coming.”

On Monday, it was time to start, with the same players in the same visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium, acknowledging the importance of a four-game series against the team with the best record in baseball – then not quite pulling off the statement game they planned.

Castro, who delivered a run-scoring single in the Cubs’ five-run first inning, called it the “most important series” of the season so far.

Rizzo, who homered in the second, called it a “test.”

In the end, on this night, it was a test the Cubs’ strained bullpen could not pass – the Cubs blowing leads of 5-0 and 8-4 to lose 10-9 after a bullpen meltdown in the seventh.

“We played really well tonight. We just didn’t pitch that well tonight,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just didn’t execute the latter part of the game pitching wise.”

Cubs starter Travis Wood, who gave up a Mark Reynolds grand slam in the bottom of the first on a rally that began when he hit a batter with an 0-2 pitch, blamed himself for failing to better control damage – despite a near flawless stretch of 14 batters at one point.

“That’s a great ball team over there,” said Wood, who opened the sixth with three straight hits allowed and exited. “They’re on a hot streak right now, and they never give away at-bats, and they never quit. And they’ve always been a tough team.”

That’s the point, of course, for an upstart Cubs team with four rookies getting regular playing time, and a fifth – outfielder Matt Szczur – expected to rejoin the roster Tuesday for the injured Chris Denorfia (hamstring).

“That’s the toughest team in our division – they’re always in first place, they always win the division,” Castro said. “I think if we play hard and give it 100 percent all four games here and do our jobs, man, we’re letting those guys know that we’re ready to compete.”

The Cubs’ lineup did its part, scoring nine – including rookie Addison Russell’s second homer – against the top pitching staff in the majors (which had allowed four runs in its last three games combined).

The Cardinals’ seventh consecutive victory Monday gives them the best 25-game start (19-6) in franchise history.

The Cubs suddenly have their first three-game skid of the young season.

“It’s still really early, but they’re the best,” Rizzo said, “and they’re the defending champions, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to take that away from them.”

The Cubs’ early burst of runs looked all the more impressive after managing just six runs over their previous four games – and against a starting pitcher, Carlos Martinez, with a 1.73 ERA who hadn’t pitched less than six innings or allowed more than two runs in a start.

Against a team that has barely flinched since losing its ace, Adam Wainwright, to a season-ending Achilles injury April 25.

“With all due respect to Adam — and I know he’s still a huge part of what’s going on over there – all those guys, 1 to 25 on that roster, are ready to contribute,” Rizzo said. “They have a good bullpen. They grind out at-bats. They have everything that good teams have.”

Everything the Cubs want. Everything the Cubs want to be.

Eleven World Series titles, 19 pennants, 27 playoff appearances in the last 89 seasons.

“That’s a methodology they’ve got. They have a way of doing things,” Maddon said, referencing Branch Rickey’s influence joining the Cardinals 100 years ago as a manager, then staying on as general manager and developing the modern farm system. “They’ve created this culture, this method. … And they’re used to winning.

“And we’re in the process of doing the same thing with the Cubs. We haven’t won the World Series that they’ve had, but we’ve got a great tradition also. Now it’s time to really add those methods. The fan-base layer is there. We’ve just got to create that method of operation on a daily basis.”

Methodology, culture, whatever. These players on this Cubs team don’t seem to care much for poring over history or lionizing Branch Rickey.

Mostly, they just want to beat these guys this week. As daunting as that might seem on a night in which nine runs wasn’t enough to do it.

The series is far from over. And the Cubs have a long way to go to prove their winning start to the season is a sign of anything to come this year.

“We know what we’ve got,” Rizzo said. ”There’s no secret in this clubhouse what we have here. Win or lose games, we know what we’re capable of doing. It’s about us going out and doing it.”