ST. LOUIS – Under a gray, heavy sky that had already emptied one storm into Busch Stadium and threatened to bring another, Cubs manager Joe Maddon thought about where else he could be – specifically, where else he might want to be.
“Nowhere,” he said emphatically.
On the rainiest, muggiest day in St. Louis this month, Maddon was in the middle of the storm, in the middle of the toughest division in baseball.
And loving it.
And then the Cubs opened up a big early lead on the best team in baseball and held on to beat the National League Central-leading Cardinals 8-5.
For those scoring at home, that’s two in a row for the Cubs in St. Louis, by a combined score of 17-5 – after losing six of their first seven meetings against the Cards at Busch this season.
And big-money left-hander Jon Lester, the guy who won a World Series game here less than two years ago, goes for the sweep and a six-game winning streak when he starts the series finale on Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Anthony Rizzo, whose two-run homer in the first off Cards ace Michael Wacha was the 100th homer of his career (28th this season). “I feel like this team every day we’re just getting more confident and more confident. The group we have, that could be real scary.
“We’ve just got to keep playing good baseball.”
So far, the Cubs have pushed the Pirates and the Cardinals to tighten the NL Central race enough that only 6 ½ games separate those three teams – with the Cubs just two behind Pittsburgh for the top wild-card spot and a home date in that one-game playoff.
The Cubs earned win No. 80 with 25 to play – including four more against St. Louis and seven against the Pirates.
Can they still catch the Cardinals for the division title?
“I don’t see why not,” said Rizzo. “Obviously, the Pirates feel the same way.”
Except it wasn’t Andrew McCutchen guaranteeing an NL Central title last January. It was Rizzo.
Never mind the Cubs’ five straight fifth-place finishes before this year.
“That was January. It’s September now,” Rizzo said. “[The prediction] is the last thing on my mind.
“It was more [about] setting the tone. But it is what it is.”
Maddon said this week he still loved the fact that Rizzo made the bold statement last winter. Rizzo has downplayed it ever since.
But the Cubs have trimmed five games off the Cardinals’ lead since the last time they saw them before this series. And nothing about the dynamic between these teams seems the same.
“I don’t think we’re a different team,” said Jason Hammel (8-6), who took a shutout into the seventh before the Cardinals scored five against him and three relievers in the inning. “We’re a smarter team.”
A team with Starlin Castro going from everyday shortstop to part-time second baseman – and Card killer on Tuesday.
Castro drove in four runs with a three-run homer in the second and a run-scoring double in the seventh. And added a walk for good measure.
He’s hitting .354 (23-for-65) since losing his starting job in early August, with six doubles, two homers and six RBIs.
“I feel locked in right now,” said Castro, who’s standing closer to the plate and keeping his stance more closed. “I’m not enjoying [being a platoon player]. I know I can play. But the team is playing pretty good, and whatever is good for the team, I’ll be in.”
“He was huge today,” Maddon said of Castro. “Starlin’s been so professional.”
“He’s a competitor,” Rizzo said. “He wants to win. And he knows what’s at stake here.”
A sweep is at stake Wednesday. And not the kind the Cubs suffered the last time they were in town.
On Tuesday, the Cardinals scored five times in the seventh, went through four Cubs’ pitchers and had the go-ahead run at the plate when Pedro Strop finally got the last out. And then newcomer Fernando Rodney pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, Hector Rondon pitched a scoreless ninth, and the Cubs won.
“It feels good, no doubt,” Rizzo said. “Especially because they’ve played so good all year. To come in and play well here and hold a lead – we’ve played well here all year to be honest, but we’ve blown leads.
“We’ve just got to keep playing baseball. We’ve got a long way to go. A long way to go. We can’t look up now.”