If the Cubs can learn anything from the Cardinals this season, it might have something to do with why the Cardinals say they’re not worried about the Cubs.
Best record in baseball? Double-digit lead in the division? Best starting rotation in baseball since the dead-ball era?
“It doesn’t matter,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before his Cardinals beat the Cubs 4-3 on Tuesday night for back-to-back wins to open the three-game series at Wrigley Field.
“We’re not even at the All-Star break yet,” he said. “We’ve still got a long way to go. We just focus on what we do. And I can say that because … even last year for a good part of the year we had the best record in all of baseball. And I refused to look at it. Because it doesn’t tell you anything.”
Especially by the time you spend six months producing the best record in baseball, only look like the most beat up, least imposing team in the playoff field by October.
That’s why the Cubs walked Matheny’s talk Tuesday with a series of roster moves that puts them in position to ease the load on their starting staff during a heavy midseason stretch of the schedule while also getting a first-hand look at their bullpen depth ahead of next month’s trading deadline.
“You don’t get any points for where you are at the various quarter poles of this race,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said after the Cubs optioned reliever Adam Warren to Class AAA Iowa to stretch him out for a spot start before the All-Star break. “All that matters is where you are at the end.”
The Cubs are in the midst of a 24-games-in-24-days run to the break, with Warren expected to be slipped into the rotation after two minor-league starts as a one-time sixth starter to give the starting five an extra day. He might make one more similar start after the break, manager Joe Maddon said.
“We feel like that’s a smart thing to do to make sure that we’re playing our best baseball when it matters,” Hoyer said.
As opposed to June. No matter how big the lead – which is down to 10 ½ games over the second-place Cards.
“Our focus is where we’re going to be at the end of the race,” Hoyer said.
And, as much as anything, making sure they’re not last year’s Cardinals.
That team won 100 games but limped to the finish (14-16 in their final 30), their starting pitching frayed, then got bounced quickly in the playoffs by the hotter Cubs.
The Cubs are off to an even better start than the Cardinals were a year ago. And their starting pitching has looked even better through mid-June than the Cards’ best-in-baseball staff did.
“The strength of our team has been really consistent starting pitching,” Hoyer said. “Making sure the guys are well rested and we don’t grind them too hard now is really important.”
But even before Jason Hammel’s early troubles Tuesday, the Cubs devised the plan with Warren, who got a jump start with a 51-pitch appearance Sunday.
And Hoyer’s not ruling out a temporary six-man rotation – or trading for a reliable starting pitcher if the opportunity arises even as the front office targets bullpen help toward the July 31 trading deadline.
“I think everything’s on the table as far as trying to make sure you are in the best position going down the stretch,” Hoyer said. “The important thing – we’ve said this many times – is that one-game [wild-card] playoff is a scary event.
“Our focus is on trying to win the division and get a guaranteed five-game series. And making sure we’re playing our best baseball down the stretch is the best way to do that.”
Nobody knows the value of that better than Matheny, who has been part of the team with the best record in baseball twice without winning the World Series (as a player in 2004; manager in 2015).
“If you’re living in the past, you’re setting yourself up for some heartache in the future,” Matheny said. “That’s positively or negatively. I think we’re on the other side of it now, where the same process applies.”