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Cubs open normal, ‘boring’ stretch vs. Cardinals after ‘bizarre’ early schedule

Javy Baez after a double against the Cardinals last year.

After he hit a homer and two doubles to help the Cubs clobber the Mariners in Seattle on Wednesday, somebody asked shortstop Javy Baez how much he was looking forward to seeing the Cardinals for the first time this season on Friday.

“That’s who we play now?” he said. “I really don’t pay attention to that.”

Yeah, right.

Except he didn’t seem to be kidding.

And a quick glance at the Cubs’ first-month schedule suggests why – and maybe even part of why they got off to that ugly start a month ago.

“These three road trips have been bizarre, to Texas, Miami, Seattle, where we’ve never been,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said.

The Cubs have played only six games against division opponents and spent 17 of their first 27 games on the road, including two east coast trips and one out west.

“It’s kind of weird we haven’t played very many NL Central games at all so far,” second baseman Daniel Descalso said.

At this point last year, the Cubs had played every team in the division, a total of 14 times, including seven against the Brewers.

By May 1 this time around, the Cubs had played more games against American League teams (seven) than NL Central teams.

“It’s definitely bizarre, but as the summer hits we’ll see those teams more, and the travel will start to get easier,” Rizzo said.

“It’ll be nice personally to settle in at home and really get into the season.”

Whether any of that strange, early schedule helps explain their 1-6 start, the Cubs are playing their best baseball of the opening five weeks as they open their first series of the season against the first-place Cardinals – winning their last four straight and 13 of 17 to climb to second place.

The bullpen has a 1.97 ERA the last 20 games. The pitching staff overall has a 2.35 ERA over the last 19. The lineup is averaging 5.7 runs per game this season.

Ace Jon Lester is back from a hamstring injury and just pitched seven dominant innings to beat the Mariners Wednesday. And last year’s All-Star Cubs hitters – Baez and catcher Willson Contreras – both top 1.000 in OPS as they start a 10-game stretch of home games.

The Cardinals also are hot, taking a five-game winning streak into Thursday’s game against the Nationals, with wins in 10 of their last 11.

“You want to know where you stack up with the teams in your division,” said Descalso, a first-year Cub who spent five seasons with the Cardinals. “They’re playing really well right now. It’ll definitely be a challenge fore us. But we’ve also been playing really well.”

Nine of the Cubs next 13 games are against division opponents, including next weekend against the third-place Brewers.

“I think this is what everyone kind of expected leading up to the season, that this division was going to be really good with ourselves, the Cardinals and the Brewers at the top,” Descalso said

The Cardinals look especially intriguing after adding six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt to the lineup and two-time All-Star Andrew Miller to the bullpen (though Miller has struggled the first month).

“They’re good. I’ve been looking at some of their numbers in the paper,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “But there’s a lot of familiarity. It’s a lot of the same except for Goldschmidt – which is a pretty big ‘except for.’

“But I like their young pitchers a lot. I think that’s the biggest difference from when they were struggling the last couple of years and now.”

If the first month of the Cubs season felt bizarre, consider Friday an unofficial opener for schedule normalcy – with 70 of the final 134 games against NL Central opponents. Or as Kris Bryant might call it, the “boring” part.

That includes 16 more against the rival Cards after this first-three-game look.

“Every year it’s a battle to beat them. And now the Brewers and the Pirates and the Reds,” Rizzo said. “It’s not like just this year because they made some moves. They were going for it last year and the year before that. So it’ll be fun.”

By Friday, even Baez should know the Cardinals are in town.

“We’ll be ready for them,” he said.