CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs can feel good about themselves as they arrive back home to open a six-game homestand on Monday. They went 4-2 on their just-completed road trip -- both of the losses coming by a single run -- and still have sole possession of second place in the NL Central, with the team ahead of them having just lost its ace.
Yes, news of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright possibly being lost for the season due to an Achilles injury suffered Saturday made its way through the Cubs' clubhouse in Cincinnati on Sunday. As you would expect, there was no celebrating. And this isn't September. It's a little early to pay attention to your opponents that closely. Plus, if there is any team that can survive a devastating injury, it's the Cardinals.
"You can't prepare for people getting hurt," former Cardinal Jason Motte said. "The guys rally around it. The other thing is, when guys get hurt, they don't sit off in the corner and say, 'oh poor me.' We helped each other. In 2011, Wainwright was one of the biggest cheerleaders we had on that team."
St. Louis has been through this before with the very same pitcher. Wainwright had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and all the Cardinals did was win the World Series.
"They're deep," Cubs starter Jake Arrieta said. "They have some guys at Triple-A that can come in and fill that void. Not many guys can do what Wainwright does every five days, but I think the Cardinals will be fine."
But the difference between 2011 and 2015 is not in the Cardinals, but in the Cubs. At 10-7, the Cubs already have shown they're a good team. Even after three weeks, we can start to make some assessments within the NL Central. The Cardinals are the class right now while the Pirates and Cubs may be about even. The Reds are probably a little behind both those teams, with the Milwaukee Brewers on the verge of a long, losing season. Can the Cubs keep it up?
Manager Joe Maddon talked about an adjustment/evaluation period in April, but the Cubs have been winning through it. And they've been winning without two key relievers and with Jon Lester just scratching the surface of his ability. But they've also won five games in their final at-bat. That can be viewed as a good thing, or an ominous sign that fortune won't go their way forever.
"I think the thing you have to pay attention to is the close ballgames we've been winning," pitcher Jason Hammel said. "Those are the things that show up later in the year."
We can spin it a lot of ways, but Hammel isn't wrong. After all, the ninth inning and beyond count at the plate as much as the first, fifth or seventh, so what does it matter when the Cubs score? Still, we know this team isn't quite a juggernaut -- not yet at least.
"The young players we have here are a little more advanced than most," Arrieta said. "They're going to take their lumps just like we all will, but they're ahead of the curve."
The word Arrieta is looking for is "maturity." It keeps coming up when you talk about the young Cubs players. Jorge Soler is going through a slump now; Addison Russell broke out in a big way on Sunday with a three-run double; Bryant has yet to hit a home run but keeps getting on base. The Cubs have enough going for them to keep their collective heads above water.
Maybe the loss of Wainwright will matter more now than it did in 2011. The division is better -- mostly because the Cubs (and Pirates) are better.
"The division is wide-open until there is one horse left at the end of the year," Hammel said. "We still have 140-something games left. [The Cardinals] have proven when pieces fall they can deal with it. If we're worrying about other teams' injuries, then we're worrying about the wrong thing."
That was the overall sentiment in the clubhouse. It's way too early to look up -- at the standings or anything else. Rizzo often talks about playing with "blinders" on. The season is too long to worry about anything but the next game.
Now that the Cubs have established they're a pretty good team, the next question is in regard to the long season: Can their youth withstand the grind of 162 big league games? Maturity might not have anything to do with the answer to that question. Their bodies and minds have never gone through it -- at least for the three key rookies who are starting position players. It's impossible to answer that now, but when the dog days of July and August come, let's see how Bryant & Co. react. The talent is there -- no one will dispute that.
"If everyone continues to take that step, we can win on the road or at home," Arrieta said Sunday after the Cubs' sixth road victory against three losses.
As for Wainwright, fans might be breaking down how the Cubs can catch and pass the Cardinals in the standings, but the competitors who comprise Maddon's team would rather see Wainwright on the mound. At least that's what the Cubs are saying. It's not hard to believe them.
"I always want to beat everybody with their best people involved," Maddon said. "I'm certain they will figure it out. They have great resources and some nice spare parts that I'm not aware of.
"Sometimes it's a rally cry for a group, also. Have to be careful with that. It definitely hurts them, but it has nothing to do with us."
At the very least, we can celebrate the fact that something that happens with an opponent actually might matter to the Cubs -- now or later. They're relevant again and the first three weeks of the season have proven it.