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The Cardinals Have a New Identity: Young, Aggressive, Joyful, and Confident

The recharged Cardinals are 20-6 since July 27,  a record that’s a full six games better than the Cubs (13-11) over that time. But as play gets underway on this Friday, the Cubs still reside in first place in the NL Central, 3 games ahead of the Cardinals and 3.5 above the Brewers.

And from the sounds and words coming out of Chicago, the Cubs plan to keep it that way.

“This is a great team, tremendous energy,” said Cole Hamels, the newest member of the Cubs’ starting rotation. “This is a tough division that has some good teams that are fighting, so it’s just a matter of really enjoying the moment. I know we’re in the lead and that’s what we’re destined to do — to go out and win the division. That’s what we fight for.”

This should be fun.

We’re seeing a role reversal … of the role reversal.

Huh? Well, think back to 2015.

The Cubs were young, hungry, talented and full of themselves. Their energy was amazing. It was a fun-loving team, loose and confident. They would win 97 games that season, rout the Cardinals in the ’15 NLDS, and lose to the Mets in the NLCS. In 2016, the precocious but maturing Cubs won 103 games and the first World Series for the franchise since 1908. In 2017 the Cubs had 92 victories and won the NL Central for the second consecutive year — but couldn’t get past the Dodgers in the NLCS. And at 73-53, the 2018 Cubs have the best record in the NL.

As the youthful Cubs changed roles with the Cardinals and emerged as the ruling class of the NL Central, the Cardinals seemed older than they were. The Cards were low on energy. IQ, and motivation. They were careless in the field, and on the bases. But they were still haughty, still acting like the powerhouse that owned the division for years.

As the 2018 campaign moves closer to September the Cardinals have gone young, gone wild, gone off.  They have the league’s best record (24-11) since Mike Shildt was promoted to manager in the immediate aftermath of Mike Matheny’s removal.

Officially, the Cardinals have eight rookies on their 25-man roster: outfielders Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill; super utility man Yairo Munoz; starting pitchers Jack Flaherty and Austin Gomber; and relievers Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson and Mike Mayers. But really, we’re talking about nine rookies. After a fine start against the Dodgers on Monday night, pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon was returned to Triple A Memphis as a simple roster maneuver. Ponce wouldn’t be able to pitch for several days, and the Cardinals needed a roster spot before reactivating pitcher Carlos Martinez from the disabled list. Poncedeleon will be back with the big club soon.

That’s nine rookies in the mix.

And six Cardinals have less than two full seasons of MLB service time: Shortstop Paul DeJong; first baseman-outfielder Jose Martinez; backup catcher Francisco Pena; starting pitchers Miles Mikolas and John Gant; and starter-reliever Luke Weaver.

If you’re keeping score at home,  that’s 14 of the 25 St. Louis roster spots held by players with fewer than two seasons in the majors. And now the Cardinals are the fun bunch, with dudes like Bader racing to make five-star defensive plays, or muscling up like Tyler “Bro’Neill” to slam a game-tying pinch homer in the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium this week. And there’s Munoz, a money hitter who can be used at six different defensive positions. Flaherty has the stuff of a future ace … a near future ace … Hicks leads the majors with an average fastball velocity of 100.3 mph. Mikolas is one of the NL’s best starting pitchers for 2018 … J. Gant has done a commendable job as a swing starter/reliever … DeJong is playing terrific defense and hitting for power. Jose Martinez is one of the team’s best all-around hitters.

The Cardinals have that nonstop flow of energy that reminds one of the 2015 Cubs. It’s a team that’s found the fast lane, one that leads to first place in the NL Central. And the kids are leading the charge, with a combination of talent, enthusiasm and aggressiveness that fires up their older teammates.

The Cubs still have fun, but not as much. They’re supposed to win, supposed to dominate. It is a team that’s pursuing a second World Series title, and anything short of that will qualify as a disappointment. The fans’ patience is thinner now. Manager Joe Maddon is criticized more frequently. Struggling players don’t get much empathy. The Cubs live with the strain of heavy expectations.

Until Shildt took over to quicken his team’s pulse and jump-start the Cards’ competitive hearts, no one saw this coming. The Cubs already had to deal with the Brewers. But now the Cubs are being being stalked by the restless Cardinals — a team that in some way probably reminds the Cubs of themselves back in 2015.

The Cubs have the award winners, the big stars, the postseason performers that should provide an edge in a close September race.

As The Athletic pointed out:

  • The Cubs have the 2008 NLCS MVP and the 2008 World Series MVP — Hamels, who is 4-0 with an 0.79 ERA since being acquired from Texas late last month.
  • The Cubs have the  2015 NLCS MVP  in second baseman Daniel Murphy, who played for the Mets at the time. The Cubs gave a borderline prospect to Washington to add Murphy this week; he had four hits in his first 10 at-bats as a Cub.
  • The Cubs have the regular-season 2016 NL Most Valuable Player in third baseman Kris Bryant.
  • They have the 2016 NLCS co-MVPs in infielder Javier Báez and starting pitcher Jon Lester.
  • The Cubs have the 2016 World Series MVP, Ben Zobrist.
  • And starting pitcher  Kyle Hendricks has won a league ERA title, and pitched  a pennant-clinching game, and started Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

And the Cubs won’t give up first place; you’ll have to take it away from them. And in recent weeks baseball president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have parted with very little in acquiring Murphy, Hamels and relievers Brandon Kintzler, Jesse Chavez and Jorge De La Rosa. T

The offense is dragging, but the Cubs won’t stay quiet with the bats for much longer.

“We have a great  pitching staff,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We have a great defense. We’re a tough team to beat, even when we’re not hitting the ball at all.”

And the Cubs seem determined to protect what’s theirs.

“When you’re in the hunt like we are, there’s just a different method going to the ballpark,” Maddon said. “You don’t have to look for that energy. It just shows up in your face, so I love all of that. I think the guys do also. We’re used to this. And then you get Daniel (Murphy) walking in the door and Cole (Hamels) walking in the door. All these guys have brought another level of energy to the group.”

Murphy sensed that the Cubs had something special going — an unbreakable confidence — when he competed against them. And now that he’s a Cub, Murphy has a better understanding of them.

“One of the best ways I’ve been able to describe competing against the Cubs is that there’s a lot of organizations that can give a punch,” Murphy told reporters. “But few can take one the way this team and this organization can —  and then give one back. … you feel like you get that big punch on them and you get out in front and you’re going to run away with it and they just won’t go away. I think that’s a testament to the ownership, the front office and the players on the field and the leadership that some of the guys bring. … to be fortunate enough to be able to have this opportunity on this team, in this city, I couldn’t be more ecstatic.”

The Cardinals have that same vibe going. “These guys have ability and they have aggression,” Shildt said after a win over the Dodgers. “They believe in themselves and they’re in attack mode. It’s about not giving in, regardless of the situation.”

“Everyone’s kind of getting amped up,” second baseman Kolten Wong said.

That’s right.

And when the Cardinals and Cubs are at their best — their rivalry is even better.

Thanks for reading… I’ll see you soon after taking some time off.

-Bernie

More – A Look at the Cardinals’ Hitters: Who Has Improved the Most Since the Manager Change?