ST. LOUIS — All the red. The Arch. The Clydesdales and Budweiser signs.
The Cubs are keenly aware of their surroundings this week — and the significance of that as they closed in Tuesday on the moment they would clinch the National League Central division championship.
The Cubs have won a few division championships; that by itself is nothing new.
But to outmuscle the Cardinals in the fall for three consecutive years — and to do this one at their place — might suggest one of the top trend shifts in baseball these days.
“When I got to the Cubs, I made it kind of clear that I feel like we’ve got some catching up to do as far as that goes,” said right fielder Jason Heyward, who signed as a free agent before last season — and who hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning of Tuesday’s 8-7 loss at Busch Stadium. “Playoff wins and world championships, things like that. This is another opportunity to take a step in that direction if we want to continue to be known as a team that’s expected to be in the playoffs.”
More specifically, as a team that expects to rip away some of that Midwest baseball mystique the Cardinals have nurtured for decades — maybe even build some long-term mystique of their own.
“When I got here and people would talk about those [Cardinals] teams, I’d understand why they were beating them up,” said manager Joe Maddon, who entered the game on the brink of being 3-for-3 in playoff appearances with the Cubs. “You’ve got to feel confidence in yourself. You’ve got to believe you can do it to even be able to do it.
“There’s nothing going to come easily when you play St. Louis, especially here.”
The Cubs got a taste of that quickly as the Cards jumped to an early 5-1 lead and held on to postpone the inevitable clincher.
The Cubs’ magic number is at one with two left at Busch Stadium to try to clinch a title in St. Louis for the first time since 1938.
“When I think back with my time with the Red Sox, I remember with the Yankees, when I first got there, I felt like we kind of feared them a little bit and then we were able to knock them off,” president Theo Epstein said.
He said the Red Sox’ American League Championship Series comeback against the Yankees on the way to their historic 2004 championship changed that.
“I think in a way the same thing is happening with the Cardinals.”
When the Cubs eliminated the Cardinals from the race on Monday (with only the Brewers left to eliminate), they had suddenly won 31 of the last 49 meetings between the teams, including three of four in the 2015 playoffs.
Bird feed no more.
“Once we were able to beat them in the 2015 Division Series — that’s a series that’s not talked about enough,” Epstein said. “That was a really transformative moment for us. That was the point at which we no longer feared them.
“We will always respect them; that’s what makes it meaningful to beat them and do to what we’ve done relative to them the last three years. But I think there’s no fear there.”
The Cubs are 12-5 against the Cardinals this year, including 8-1 at home.
They need merely a 2-3 finish to wind up with 90 wins despite a losing record and 5½-game deficit in the division at the All-Star break.
Since then, they have the best record in the National League (45-24, .652 winning percentage).
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