BY TONI GINNETTI
For the Sun-Times
Just as manager Joe Maddon had predicted, the anticipation of the playoffs has the Cubs peaking. They have the best record in the majors since July 27 (36-16).
And just as he hoped, the Cubs are fueling the drive with self-confidence.
“Oh, yeah. I see it daily, with the rookies and with the vets,” rookie shortstop Addison Russell said. “Every day is different, but every day there are opportunities that present themselves and the guys manage it.”
The 4-3 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday didn’t dampen the mood, even if it ended a five-game winning streak.
The Cubs won four of their last six games against the team with the best record in the majors and gave themselves a preview of what playoff baseball will be like.
“It was an awesome atmosphere all weekend,” starter Jon Lester said. “Fun baseball, good baseball against a good team, and we played a good series.”
Lester (10-11) took the loss. He gave up home runs to Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty in the first inning, then allowed only three more hits — two in the third for the Cardinals’ other run.
But Lester, who helped the Red Sox beat the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series, wasn’t glum.
“You have to look at the positives and not the ‘what ifs,’ ” he said. “We would have liked to win all six, but that’s a good team and they don’t give away outs. We did a good job of pressuring them and proving to ourselves we can give them a good run and maybe beat them [in October.]
“If we face them again down the road, these games helped guys as far as confidence.”
That’s the Cubs’ prevailing mood with 13 games left in the regular season, including three against the wild-card-leading Pirates.
“We’ve evolving,” center fielder Dexter Fowler said. “We played [the Cardinals] down to the wire. We’ve made adjustments and matured from when we played them [earlier in the season].”
That includes Russell, 21, the youngest Cub and only three years removed from high school. It already feels like the playoffs to him.
“It does,’’ he said. “It feels like pitch to pitch, the crowd is into it, as we are always pitch to pitch, but you can definitely feel it with the crowd.”
Russell and most of his teammates never have played before sellout crowds like the ones at Wrigley Field the last month.
Neither has Maddon.
“The Tampa Bay fans were great to us, and that’s not what I’m talking about,” the former Rays manager said. “This ballpark was built 100 years ago and the fan base has had a chance to grow exponentially, so it is different.”
The weekend series drew nearly 123,000, but the intensity was all about October.
“It’s just different, and in a good way,” Maddon said. “It wasn’t lost on me last year [when the Rays played an interleague series here], and this year it’s been exaggerated positively. I think you understand it when you have a makeup game on a Monday and almost 40,000 people show up at 1 p.m. That says it all.
“You grow up in these moments. You can feel how we’ve grown as a team.”
Talent is only one part of it.
“We all have different roles, and we all think we exceed in one thing or another,” Russell said. “And at one point in a game, it may present itself. You may be challenged with adversity, but you handle your business the way you do and hopefully things will work out.
“Every one of my teammates is grinding, but we’re having fun at the same time. We don’t feel our backs are against the wall. We’re having fun.”
Follow me on Twitter @toniginnetti.