Before the gloomy, misty overcast Friday turned Wrigleyville into London, the Cubs’ final homestand of 2016 had played out in near-perfect baseball weather, which was in keeping with how this near-perfect baseball season has gone for them.
Too bad. I miss ‘‘fall ball,’’ those late-September dates when there’s just enough chill in the air to remind us the calendar is running out of days and the games take on a crisp urgency missing from the more languid pace of July and August.
The schedule says there will be fall ball on the South Side next week, but that’s in name only. The White Sox haven’t played a September game that mattered
in eight years, if anyone has noticed. Urgency isn’t a word you associate with their brand, but that’s another story.
The Cubs have had to look within themselves to find urgency for several weeks now, as their division lead reached double digits and kept growing. The clincher was almost anticlimactic, although the team sure celebrated as though it meant something, amid cautious reminders that it was only the first of four increasingly tough goals within tantalizing reach this season.
And there’s no danger of the final home weekend being anything less than playoff-intense, not with the despised Cardinals in town and desperate to carve out a playoff future for themselves after an atypically shaky regular season.
From the step-on-their-throats vitriol of pre-series discourse, Cubs fans might be dreading the prospect of a playoff matchup against the Cardinals and viewing these three games as a last, best chance of preventing it.
The sentiment is understandable, given the Cardinals’ postseason pedigree that’s second only to the Yankees’ overall and the best in baseball since the century turned.
The Cubs? Not in that team picture, as though we need to be reminded.
But the script flipped during the National League Division Series last season, when the Cardinals, after a 100-victory regular season, came at the Cubs with a stronger lineup and better pitching than their 2016 model and still went out in four games.
The 17-game gap in the standings is a better measure of the teams than the standoff they have played to in the 2016 season series.
To put it another way: Say I give you Stephen Piscotty over Jason Heyward in right field, Matt Holliday (maybe) over whomever the Cubs play in left and a push (for now) between Matt Carpenter and Ben Zobrist or Javy Baez at second. Could you in good conscience award the Cardinals an edge at any other position?
Starting rotation? Nope. Bullpen? Not with Trevor Rosenthal injured and Zach Duke being counted on for meaningful work.
Even catcher. Yadier Molina remains a threat with a bat in his hands, especially when it matters. But Yadi is 34 and showed the effects of 13 big-league seasons when he bounced into a double play after two wild pitches scooted through him during the Cubs’ four-run first inning.
Willson Contreras, meanwhile, plays every inning with the joy of a young kid breaking in a new mitt.
The Cardinals are a model baseball organization, an exemplar of the ‘‘sustained excellence’’ to which Cubs management has aspired since taking over. But fortunes fluctuate within the best organizations. With 105 errors, 56 unearned runs and a 4.05 team ERA, these aren’t the Cardinals of Whitey Herzog or Tony La Russa. To ‘‘fear’’ them is to give in to the billy goat/black cat/Bartman curse nonsense that the current regime skillfully has managed to exorcise — for now.
I see the Dodgers or the Nationals as a more ‘‘fearsome’’ challenge than the Cardinals, but I’m like my friend Rick Morrissey — a hollow-eyed survivor of 1969.
And I had the Cubs World Series-bound last season after they took out the Cardinals in the NLDS. Worse, I’d have bet my house with my children inside it when the Cubs came home from Florida up 3-2 with Mark Prior
and Kerry Wood going in Games 6
and 7 of the 2003 NLCS. What could go wrong?
So I’ll leave the prognosticating to the two papers’ worth of experts who liked the Bears to beat the Eagles last Monday night. Maybe they can redeem themselves by forecasting the MVP race between Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. I’ve got Bryant, but the smartest baseball man I know favors Rizzo.
It’s baseball. What could go wrong?