For Cubs, catching the Cardinals isn't the point -- it's about beating the best

Don't be fooled by its good looks -- Busch Stadium has been a house of horrors for the Cubs. Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

ST.LOUIS -- The Chicago Cubs have a lot more invested in their series against the St. Louis Cardinals this week, if only because they can still catch the Pittsburgh Pirates for the top wild-card spot. Chasing down the Cardinals for the NL Central division remains a longshot, though they closed the gap to 7 1/2 games with a resounding 9-0 victory on Labor Day.

You'll excuse the Cardinals, who had to play the previous night before sleep walking through Monday’s contest, as Dan Haren easily threw his best game as a Cub. Is it possible the Cardinals and Cubs are already thinking about the playoffs? Both teams are highly likely to make it, and all it would take is a Cubs victory over the Pirates in a one-game playoff for a showdown between these two rivals in a best-of-five series.

“We watch them close because it might be someone we need to get out today,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Monday. “We don't look past today. We just don't allow ourselves to go there.”

It’s the smart move, because a 7 1/2-game lead can shrink to 5 1/2 in a matter of 24 hours when the teams complete the series Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. For the Cubs' part, they would love to catch the Cardinals, but first come the Pirates, whose lead over them has been whittled to just two games.

“You have to catch the team ahead of you first,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

But there is something more at play for the Cubs, who came into the series just 1-6 at Busch Stadium this year. Though Maddon wants his team focused on the task at hand, a large lead (8 1/2 games) in the wild-card race enables him to be thinking ahead.

“You have to teach yourself a lesson,” Maddon said. “That lesson you have to teach yourself is that you can win here. And the other team knows you can win here.”

It’s safe to say that’s not a statement for future regular-season games as much as it is for October. If the Cubs had been swept here this week and then came back to play the Cardinals in the division series, how much would they hear about a 1-9 road record against them this season? We can’t know how it would play within the locker room, but we can assume it wouldn’t exactly be their rallying cry. Maddon’s desire is for his team to have overcome all hurdles heading into next month. Earlier in the season, he called beating St.Louis “getting over the mental hump.”

“We have to start finishing games off here,” Maddon said Monday.

The Cubs got a leg up with their blowout win in the series opener, something that may not have happened earlier in the year. In fact, the Cubs have blown some leads here, including one affair that they led 5-0 after a half inning and 8-4 after five and a half. Then they got swept in June. Now they’re back to figure things out before the postseason.

“We had trouble with them last year,” Matheny said. “I don't think it’s going to change. It’s one of those rivalries that brings out the best in everybody.”

That’s also Maddon’s thinking about a historic year within the Central Division. Never has a third-place team finished with a .581 or better winning percentage. You might think that might have Maddon grumpy considering the Cubs would lead the other two divisions in the National League with that mark.

“It’s the only place to be,” Maddon said. “When you're situated like that, it should bring out the best in you. Then, of course, you ascend to the top of that group, and that even feels better. You want to be with the best all the time.”

Maddon cites his days in the American League East as a good example. As manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, he had to fight yearly battles with Goliaths like Boston and New York. He believes it made his teams better, just as it's bringing out the best in the Cubs.

One thing the two teams have in common is how they employ young players. There’s no getting their feet wet.

“There’s a lot of places that suppress young players and don't let them thrive until they've kind of earned their stripes,” Matheny said. “That’s not conducive to a young player being as good as he can be right out of the box. We’ve been fortunate with our young players, our veteran guys invest in them.”

The same can be said of the Cubs under Maddon. There might not be a better manager for breaking in first-year players. Why is this germane to the discussion? Because this is the time of year young players can play tight or start to feel the pressure of a pennant race. But with comfortable leads for both teams, they can simply soak up the experience and use it next month. It’s a whole new ballgame in the Central, as the Cubs have joined the Pirates and Cardinals as contenders -- and with a slew of talented young players.

“This time last year, it was a radically different looking team,” Matheny said. “And I’m surprised by how many blue jerseys I see in the stands.”

For Maddon, Monday was a good start to exorcising some demons at Busch stadium. Though nothing has been clinched, this is all prep work for the real deal -- that comes next month.

“They've had more experience than we have,” Maddon said. “You have to beat the better teams to be the best team.”