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Cubs get off to good start in changing fortunes in St. Louis

ST.LOUIS -- The last time the Chicago Cubs were in St. Louis, they left town with their collective tail between their legs. Having been swept by the mighty Cardinals and in the midst of their worst losing streak of the season -- five games -- their record was 39-35. It was late June, and the possibility of finishing the season four games above .500 had a nice ring to it despite the losing skid.

Boy, how things have changed. The return to the city where the Cubs were 1-6 before their 9-0 Labor Day trouncing of the Cardinals is now prep work for the playoffs.

“We have to learn to play well in this venue,” manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “We have to become comfortable in the venue and then you play your normal game there.”

That’s the beauty of a Labor Day to remember. The Cubs' manager can think long term in part because their competition keeps losing. With Pittsburgh, Washington and San Francisco all going down to defeat in matinee affairs -- Maddon was aware of all those outcomes -- the Cubs gained ground on everyone, including the Cardinals. They’re 7.5 games behind them for the division and just two games behind the Pirates for the first wild card. It’s worth acknowledging both St. Louis and Pittsburgh played Sunday night before the quick turnaround, but these things even out. The Cubs got trounced by Cincinnati after flying all night last Sunday in similar circumstances.

So yeah, it was a good day, and the frosting on the cake was oft-criticized Dan Haren pitching a gem. Who saw that coming?

“I made some subtle changes,” he said after throwing seven shutout innings. “I’m working hard to get me back to what’s made me successful.”

Those changes include mechanical and approach as he altered his grip on some pitches and varied his speeds. Haren was asked if winning at Busch Stadium was especially satisfying knowing the Cubs fortunes there this season. He didn’t know them.

“Maybe it was better I didn’t know that,” he smiled. “Everyone has struggled against the Cardinals this year.”

And that is why Maddon is trying to change the tone in the final series here before the postseason. June feels like a whole other season when you consider where the Cubs are today: 22 games over .500.

“We’re playing with a lot more confidence,” Maddon said. “We believe a lot more. It’s one thing to think you can, it’s another thing to believe you can.”

And that is the difference between the early-season Cubs and this team right now. Everyone knew they had talent, but could it come together in time for a run this season? It has. It’s why Maddon can think about October while still applying the “one day at a time" theme.

“It’s Monday,” he said in his opening thought to reporters after the game.

Maddon will recite the day just to remind everyone that only the game at hand is important, but his comments about winning in St. Louis take on more meaning as both teams march toward the playoffs.

“We have to beat them here,” he said. “That’s really important regarding our development.”

One obvious difference between then and now is simply the number of games played by the Cubs' youngsters. Addison Russell is a different player -- he hit his 13th home run of the season on Monday -- while Kyle Schwarber wasn’t even in the big leagues yet. Kris Bryant was still behind others for rookie of the year consideration. He's the favorite now. The Cubs might be able to handle the monster that is the Cardinals because their young players can simply handle things better. They did on Monday with a little help from a couple of veterans such as Haren and Dexter Fowler, who provided all the run support the pitcher needed with a lead-off home run.

“We’re totally different,” Fowler said. “The guys are maturing. The young guys coming up know they’re supposed to be here and they’re playing their part.”