Cards say Cubs improved; results show more work needed

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Cardinals starter John Lackey pitched into the eighth inning and delivered a key double to beat the Cubs.

ST. LOUIS – After four days in St. Louis against the team with the best record in baseball, the Cubs can look in the mirror if they want to blame somebody for losing three out of four games.

But the Cubs believe they also can see the etched words: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

What’s certain is that it’s the Cardinals’ rear-view mirror.

“They’re definitely better than they have been in a long time,” said Cardinals slugger Mark Reynolds.

That’s not saying much, given the five consecutive fifth-place finishes the Cubs dragged into this season.

What said more was losing three of four – including Thursday’s 5-1 loss – in an admitted litmus-test series that highlighted a sizeable pitching gap and a noticeable, anticipated gap in experience.

“They’re obviously a very, very good team, a team that’s build on a history of winning,” pitcher Jon Lester said after earning the only Cubs win of the series Wednesday night. “They’ve got a certain way they go about things. We’ve got to find our way. This team hasn’t done anything. We’ve got a bunch of talent, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. So we’ve got to keep playing these guys tough.”

The Cardinals on Thursday picked up where they left off before the Cubs snapped their eight-game winning streak Wednesday – getting behind John Lackey’s 7 2/3 innings and 10 strikeouts to win their fourth of six meetings against the Cubs this year, and the only game this week in which they didn’t trail.

“We’ve got to be better all the way around,” said Cubs starter Jake Arrieta (3-3), who failed to pitch six innings for the second straight start Thursday. “I think there’s things we can clean up everywhere. They took three of four from us and we just didn’t play well.”

And this in what was supposed to be the most important series of the season for a young team with serious pennant envy.

“We play them enough we’ll be able to return the favor,” Arrieta said.

The 21-7 Cardinals aren’t exactly shaking in their cleats over those 13 remaining games between the teams after holding court at Busch Stadium this week.

But they’re not dismissing their upstart rivals, either.

“They’re a good team right now. To say they’re not a contender is the wrong thing to say,” said Cards second baseman Kolten Wong, who went 7-for-13 in the series. “You see how they’ve played us. They’ve got talent.

“I don’t think you should ever be afraid of any team, but I definitely think that everyone should realize how good this team is. Those guys are really good over there. Over here we understand how good they are and what they have, so every time we play them we know it’s going to be a battle.”

Small consolation for a team that started four rookies Thursday and that appears to be a pitcher or two — and at least a season — away from contending.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon sees the upside in the fact that the Cubs have a winning record five weeks into the season despite a rotation that hasn’t performed particularly well yet and a lineup core that is the youngest in the majors.

“I am not discouraged by this series. It’s a long season, folks,” he said. “The gap is [in the] reps and the experience. I’m very satisfied with [how] the athletic ability [stacks up] between both teams.

“I’m not conceding anything here. I think really good. Just give us a little more time to get the reps and experience, and keep approaching the day this way.

“We just celebrated Cinco de Mayo a couple of days ago, and that’s normally an indicator of what’s going on with your team. I was pretty happy. And that had nothing to do with Coronas and limes.”

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