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Maddon: Even if they can’t catch St. Louis, Cubs must prove they can win there

ST. LOUIS – The last time the Cubs were in St. Louis, more than two months ago, it wasn’t even worth bringing up.

Win the division? Did Anthony Rizzo have brain freeze that day in January when he guaranteed a worst-to-first launch for the last-place Cubs?

“It’s going to happen this year; it’s what we’re going to do,” the Cubs’ first baseman said the week of Cubs Convention. “We’re going to win the NL Central.”

By the end of June the Cubs could barely score in St. Louis, much less entertain thoughts of overtaking the Cardinals in the division. They scored four runs total, got swept in three games and rode their first five-game losing streak into New York.

But get a load of the Cubs in St. Louis now.

One magician, a no-hitter, five trades, two minor-league free agents and a torrid August later, Rizzo’s assertion looks at least a little more Nostradamus than no-freaking-chance.

“I still love it,” manager Joe Maddon said, recalling Rizzo’s winter prediction on a 90-degree Monday the Cubs spent beating the Cardinals 9-0 in the opener of a three-game series. “I want us to aim high. Always.

“Never run away from expectations or the word `pressure,’ “ Maddon said. “Run towards them all the time. There’s really good stuff attached to the other side.”

The Cubs are a long way from reaching the other side of the Cardinals in the NL Central race.

But they also look like they’ve come a long way from a pair of first-half trips to St. Louis, when they lost six of seven and looked incapable of a game like Monday’s.

“We’re totally different,” said center fielder Dexter Fowler, who homered off Lance Lynn (11-9) leading off the game and doubled home two more runs in the second. “The guys are maturing; the young guys coming up, they know they’re supposed to be here, and they’re playing the part.”

How different? Since getting swept June 26-28 in St. Louis, the Cubs are 40-22 (.645) – a half-game better than the Pirates (39-22) and four games better than the Cardinals (36-26) in that span.

For the season, they still trail the Cardinals by 7 ½ games with 26 left – five against the Cards. But they moved to just two games behind Pittsburgh for the top wild-card berth, with seven meetings left with the Pirates.

“Try to win as many as possible and see what happens,” said right-hander Dan Haren (9-9), who pitched seven scoreless innings in by far his best of seven starts since the Cubs acquired him in a trade from the Marlins. “We play them enough to where if we go on a run – we’ve got 20 or 30 games left – if we go on a really good run we can do something.”

Maddon admits to scoreboard watching.

“I saw that Pittsburgh had lost. I saw that the Mets had beaten Washington. What else you want to know?” Maddon said, adding that he’s not looking at the top of the division yet.

“You’ve got to get the team in front of you first, before you can really focus on the next one,” he said. “Of course, I’ve said from the beginning that was our objective, to win the division.

“Let’s just play tomorrow like we played today.”

Being able to win in St. Louis could be as big as anything, regardless of the division race. The wild-card winner likely faces the Cardinals in the five-game division series.

“We have to learn to play well in this venue,” Maddon said. “You have to become more comfortable in the venue, and then you play your normal game there, and then you can compete with this team.”

It’s already much different this time around – from Fowler’s .431 on-base percentage and better power since the All-Star break to Jake Arrieta’s Cy Young pace since July.

Rookie All-Star Kris Bryant made a late-July change to his swing and is hitting .328 with nine homers and a 1.030 OPS since the start of August. Rookie Addison Russell has moved from second to short and has as many homers in the big leagues this year (13) as he had in the minors all last year, with seven since Aug. 2 – including a two-out, three-run shot to center in Monday’s third.

“We’re playing with a lot more confidence,” Maddon said. “We believe a lot more, that we can do this now. It’s one thing to think you can, another thing to believe you can.”

Russell feels the difference – and the magnitude of just being able to do what his team was able to in this place Monday.

“It’s huge,” he said. “The city of St. Louis is definitely behind this team. So we definitely have to jump out, and whenever we’re ahead, we just have to bury it.”