Clinch-mode Cubs shove rival Cardinals to the precipice of 2017 abyss

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Kris Bryant rounds the bases after homering at Busch Stadium. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS — It’s probably safe to say that Dexter Fowler hasn’t had quite as much fun in his first season with the Cardinals as he had in his last one with the Cubs.

“I wish we were winning a little bit more,” the center fielder and leadoff man of the 2016 World Series champs said before the Cubs’ 10-2 victory in the opener of a four-game series between old rivals Monday. “But other than that, it’s been all right.”

Has it, though?

Maybe for Fowler, the indignity of looking up at the Cubs while wearing the Birds on the Bat across his chest hasn’t really set in. After all, he practically just got here.

Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal has been around since way back when — some of you may even remember this — the Cubs were a last-place team. He’s plenty in tune with what it means to have the Cubs (magic number: so small, it’s not even relevant) come into Busch Stadium and clinch a division title. And dance and stomp all over the mound. And party like rock stars in the visitors’ clubhouse.

The Cubs haven’t clinched anything in this stellar baseball town since winning the National League pennant in 1938. Barring the obscenely unpredictable, they’re about to become the first opponent to clinch a division title — NL Central or otherwise — in the 12-year history of the Cardinals’ current ballpark.

For Rosenthal and all of Cardinal Nation, losing to the Cubs in the 2015 division series was painful. Being left at the station by the runaway Cubs in 2016 was brutal. Getting rolled by the Cubs in the season series (12-4 so far) in 2017 has been some serious salt in the wound.

But a Cubs clincher here, of all places? The whole thing has gone beyond the pale.

“When you play in St. Louis for a while, you start drinking the water here and it’s really all about the Cardinals,” Rosenthal said. “We love the Cardinals, and we don’t like to see the Cubs win. And we especially don’t want to see them win here.”

Mike Matheny has spent over a decade with the Cardinals, first as a catcher and now as their manager. Asked about the fact the Cubs could clinch before his very eyes, on his own turf, he went straight for sarcasm.

“Is that right? Cool,” he said.

A lot of folks down this way are salty when it comes to the Cubs. Lifelong fans in their 40s or older experienced three of the Cardinals’ 11 World Series titles (in 1982, 2006 and 2011). It only seems like every one of them has lunged at the opportunity to claim superiority over Cubs fans, who have a meager one.

Take it from someone who lived in St. Louis during the team’s last two championships and for 17 years in all: Cardinal Nation still isn’t sure how to cope with the harsh reality that the Cubs are in position to rule the roost in the division for years to come.

Eleven Series flags fly above the bleachers at Busch, more than we ever may see at Wrigley Field. Guess what else flew above the bleachers Monday? A single firework, which went off after a second-inning home run by Kris Bryant.

For those unaware, Bryant was playing for the visitors.

It was simply a case of honest, embarrassing human error, obviously. Or maybe a malfunctioning doohickey was to blame. Who cares which? One could cut the symbolism with a knife.

Anyone want to bet that the Cubs will leave here without locking up the division crown and burying their rivals in the NL wild-card race, to boot? It’s all but a done deal now.

Might be a wee bit fun, too.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.



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