A team rolling along 31 games above .500 — that would be the Cubs, even after their 8-4 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday — is playing high-octane baseball. The starting rotation has been impregnable, two MVP candidates man the middle of the batting order, execution in the field has been exemplary and a scary-good closer has been imported for more assurance in securing those nettlesome last three outs.
In fact, before the bullpen’s eighth-inning meltdown Saturday — Carl Edwards Jr. walked in one run and wild-pitched another home before Joe Smith served up a send-the-crowd-home grand slam to Randal Grichuk — distribution of playing time was the only issue on a roster that can’t accommodate all the talent. Tommy La Stella jeopardized his place in the organization by falling into a snit over a demotion to Iowa. Nothing personal; circumstances dictated that he was the one who had to go, despite the value of his left-handed bat.
La Stella isn’t seeing it. But if he’s home in New Jersey pouting as the playoffs start, he might want to rethink the wisdom of his intransigence.
And if the mental state of the 24th man is a team’s chief concern as it prepares for the stretch run, that team should go places.
Their visit to Wrigley Field marked the Cardinals’ final opportunity to assert themselves in a division they have pretty much dominated this century. It’s not happening. Even if they manage a series split in the series finale Sunday night, evidence suggests a dramatic shift in the National League Central’s balance of power. The Cubs are going to be good for a while. The Cards have been undone by a particularly cruel rash of injuries this season, but past teams usually had the depth to compensate. And they’ve never been known for the fielding and baserunning gaffes that have besmirched their play this season. They’ve committed 84 errors and allowed 40 unearned runs to the Cubs’ 65 and 27.
When 34-year-old Jerome Williams, a Cub for a spell 10 years ago, trundled in from the bullpen for the sixth inning Friday, you sensed the Cardinals were desperate for pitching. Four homers and six runs later, they still are.
Luke Weaver, 22, made his major-league debut as the starter Saturday, and Addison Russell reached him for a two-run homer in the second inning. But the Cubs wouldn’t score again and managed two singles until the ninth, when some lampshade-on-the-head antics by the Cards’ bullpen made it interesting for a minute.
Russell might drive in 90 runs, and with his range, arm and fluid grace, the Cubs have their shortstop for the next 10 years. If Russell isn’t mentioned with Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor in the next wave of stars at his position, he should be.
Jake Arrieta and Adam Wainwright offered the marquee pitching matchup Friday: Wainwright was Arrieta with staying power from 2010 to ’14, going 92-50 with a 2.84 ERA and four top-five finishes in Cy Young voting. But the tall-in-the-saddle right-hander looked every day of his 35 years in the heat, touched for six hits and seven runs in two innings.
Williams was just as bad as the Cubs slugged five homers, four by players whose roster spots were hardly assured when the season began. They run different guys out there, and they keep winning.
The weapon of choice Thursday was an 11th-inning, bases-loaded walk courtesy of Zach Duke, a left-handed former White Sox reliever who’d been about as useful to the Sox as a throwback uniform. Ball 4 to Anthony Rizzo was a borderline pitch, and some of the Cards groused that plate umpire Ron Kulpa had had enough after four hours on a stifling 88-degree night.
But a savvy pitcher doesn’t leave the game in the umpire’s hands in that situation. If Duke was the Cards’ counter to the Cubs’ deadline deal for Aroldis Chapman, the gap between the teams might be larger than the 13 games the standings suggest.
On Aug. 14, 2013, the Cincinnati Reds beat the Cubs 5-0 on Bronson Arroyo’s two-hitter at Wrigley, dropping them to 52-68. Cody Ransom, Donnie Murphy and Logan Watkins joined Rizzo in the Cubs’ infield. Darnell McDonald, David De Jesus and Nate Schierholtz played the outfield. Chris Rusin was the starting pitcher.
Remember that squad? Much has transpired with the Cubs in the intervening three years, most of it quite good.
It might get better.