BY TONI GINNETTI
For the Sun-Times
Only 27 games are left, but they’ll provide the biggest test for the Cubs.
The longest road trip of the season starts Monday against the Cardinals, and it ends with a four-game series against the Pirates, including a doubleheader.
Nothing could be better, the Cubs say.
“It’s the major leagues, and it’s what you play for,’’ catcher David Ross said. “We’re going to play some really good competition, and all we can do is get better from that.
“Win or lose, we’re going to grow as a team from playing these good, high-intensity baseball games against very good talent in the major leagues. It’s just going to make us better, no matter what we go through. We’re going to come out at the end of this season as better people for what we’ve gone through.
“The plan is to keep winning and try to go as far as we possibly can. You want to win the World Series. That’s everyone’s goal when you start the season. It’s a long process, and we’re still going through that.’’
Ross, 38, has been through it to the end with the Red Sox in 2013, teaming famously with pitcher Jon Lester in that championship season. He already has caught more games with the Cubs (59) than he did that year with Boston (36) because of concussions.
“I don’t like to compare [the teams],’’ Ross said. “There are still goals, and there is still a lot of time left.
‘‘But it’s nice, how we’re playing and how the guys do their work.’’
The biggest difference is in the type of rosters — with the Cubs relying on a crop of rookies and young position players.
“The younger guys are turning into true professionals on a daily basis,’’ Ross said. “They compete as hard as they can every day.
“As an old guy, it’s fun to watch.’’
They’ve proved better than any Cubs squad since the ’08 team, which finished with the best record in the National League. They’re 21 games above .500 after their three-game sweep of the Diamondbacks and have the fourth-best record (78-57) in the majors.
The Cubs have lost nine of 13 to the NL Central-leading Cardinals, including seven of eight at Busch Stadium. They are 7-5 against the second-place Pirates, going 3-3 at PNC Park.
“When you’re playing really good teams, you eventually have to beat them in their ballpark,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. “We’ve played well in St. Louis. We’ve given up leads late.
“If we grab a lead, we have to learn how to hold on to it. That’s the next learning step for us. We’ve been a good road team [35-29]. Now we have to finish things off. That’s the next level.’’
His players have adopted his approach of one game at a time — even for the so-called big ones.
“The Cardinals are a good team, and it’s fun to play them with our rivalry,’’ rookie Kris Bryant said. “But the approach is the same — no reason to get hyped up. We want to play the best and beat the best.’’
That’s just what Maddon wants to hear.
“I hope they look forward to it,’’ Maddon said. “I don’t look at it as tough or difficult. What I’ve been trying to sell them on is that this is the time of the season that supplies its own energy when you’re in the hunt.
“It should be a blast. It’s the most fun part of the year.’’
Follow me on Twitter @toniginnetti.