ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals respect Jake Arrieta, but they don’t revere him. They certainly don’t fear him.
A team isn’t going to push Arrieta to the brink like the Cardinals did Wednesday — scoring four earned runs on seven hits and chasing him from the game after five innings — unless it believes it can beat him.
“We acknowledge the fact that he’s a good pitcher and has had a good start [to the season],” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “But I think for us to give too much credit and walk up there defeated is a bad route.”
And, as everyone knows, there’s only one route the home baseball team here ever travels. It’s called the “Cardinal Way.”
The Cardinal Way couldn’t quite keep Arrieta and the Cubs from achieving a 9-8 series-clinching victory, but it made them earn every inch of it. The Cardinals trailed 6-1 in the second inning — roughly akin to being eight games down in the N.L. Central in May — but they didn’t lie down.
Right up until the end, when they put two runners on base in the ninth inning, Matheny figured the Cardinals had baseball’s most celebrated team right where they wanted it.
“It felt [like that] all the way through,” he said. “I thought it was a game we were going to steal. It would’ve been a very good one to take.”
The implication being that the Cardinals are trying to catch the Cubs in the division standings. Which, of course, they are … for whatever that’s worth.
The eight games separating the Cubs and the Cardinals might not do justice to the size of the gap between them.
The Cubs have a 4-2 edge in the season series without having played a game at Wrigley Field. The Nationals, who were swept by the Cubs at Wrigley, swept the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. The Pirates, who are 1-5 against the Cubs, are 5-1 against the Cardinals.
And here’s another way to size up the gap: The Cubs have three starting pitchers — Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester — in the top 10 in the N.L. in ERA. The Cardinals have none in the top 25. Even John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks have better ERAs than any starter on St. Louis’ staff.
“The Cubs are playing good baseball, and right now they’re enjoying it,” longtime catcher Yadier Molina said. “But it’s a long season. Anything can happen.”
If the Cardinals are afterthoughts in this Year of the Cub, they’re the last ones to know it.
“Since I’ve been here,” said closer Trevor Rosenthal, “we’ve been so consistent and so dominant — 90 wins, 93, 94, 100 — every year. We’re looking to definitely get the ball rolling and try to get hot, head into June and win a bunch of games.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon had nice things to say about the Cardinals on his way out of town. He hailed them for their hard-playing style and their never-quit attitude. Basically, it was a top of the cap to the Cardinal Way.
“That’s why they’ve won championships,” Maddon said.
But this year? It’s not that easy to picture.
“We’re not panicking over here because the Cubs have a hell of a team,” Cardinals outfielder Randall Grichuk said. “We’re just trying to step in their way.”
It’s better than giving up … for whatever that’s worth.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.