Cubs, Cardinals ready to heat things up
ST. LOUIS -- Back in 1969, a St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster named Harry Caray would try to get under the skin of the division-leading Chicago Cubs by singing, "The Cardinals are coming, tra-la, tra-la."
In 2003, then-Cubs manager Dusty Baker warned Tony La Russa's Cardinals that they had "a whole decade of us coming."
Dusty was partially right, as the Cubs won division titles in '03, '07 and '08. But for the most part the Cardinals have had run of the National League Central.
The Cards are safely ensconced in first place again this year, with the Pirates and Cubs furiously trying to keep pace. The Chicago-Pittsburgh prize looks to be the one-game, wild-card playoff with the winner getting to face the Cardinals in the division series.
The general order of life may or may not be reaffirmed once October and November are over, but the Cubs definitely are coming.
"I kind of liked when they were always finishing last," said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak before his team took on the Pirates Sunday night at Busch Stadium.
The Cubs follow the Pirates into steamy St. Louis for a three-game series, beginning with a Labor Day matinee. The Cardinals will visit Wrigley Field Sept. 18-20.
The big-market Cubs finally have awoken, and their young team is barreling through the early stages of the stretch drive seemingly unfazed.
The popular narrative is that the Cubs are "a year ahead of schedule" as far as contending goes.
"I think they're playing quite well right now," Mozeliak said. "I didn't actually know they're on a schedule or not. As far as how they've played this year, they've been great, really playing well. Obviously, it's created a lot of competition in the Central.
"As far as what concerns me, I think they're an extremely well-run organization. They have a lot of smart guys making decisions there. Obviously, we've seen a lot of talent come up through the system. Everything they're doing seems to be working."
To a couple of former Cubs players, the resurgence is not a surprise. Pitcher Carlos Villanueva spent 2013 and 2014 with the Cubs, and he may have been the team's most voluble player, giving long and thoughtful answers to most any question.
What the Cubs are doing these days isn't catching Villanueva by surprise.
"Not at all," he said. "It's something that everybody could see coming. Everybody says, 'This team is going to be good. I want to be here when they're good.' You could see it coming.
"You could see the talent that was building in the minor leagues. You just knew that if they spent a little money and got some guys to round off the young talent they have that it was probably going to be sooner than later.
"Maybe you didn't think they were going to be that good that quick, but you definitely saw it coming. I'm very happy for them, for my (former) teammates and my friends and the Chicago organization, which treated me very well."
In the Pirates' clubhouse, third baseman Aramis Ramirez was preparing for a start as his career winds down to its final days. He was a member of all three Cubs playoff teams in recent history. He left for Milwaukee after the 2011 season, when the Cubs' decline was in full swing.
The Brewers traded Ramirez to the Pirates -- his first organization -- in late July, and now Ramirez knows he could be facing the Cubs in a winner-take-all game.
"It'll be fun," he said. "They've got a great team, a great young team, really good starting pitching. Everybody is aware of what (Jake) Arrieta is doing. We have a chance to win the division, so we'll see."
Ramirez said there's one reason he's not surprised by the Cubs' surge.
"They have talent," he said. "When you have talent, talent takes over sometimes, and you've seen that with a few teams this year. The Astros. They have a young club. Nobody expected them to be where they are right now. Talent, man. Young guys can make a difference."
The Cardinals are showing no signs of giving up their lead in the Central, and in a week or so they may get Matt Holliday and Matt Adams off the disabled list. They activated Randal Grichuk off the DL on Sunday, although he's not quite ready to bat or play the field yet as he completes his recovery from an elbow injury.
So fans in Chicago and St. Louis can get ready for some pretty exciting stuff, although Mozeliak let it be known that his Cardinals have been there and done that a lot in recent years.
"For us, we've played a lot of exciting games in September," he said. "I don't really think focusing on specifically who we're playing against really matters. Most importantly, just try to win games.
"I imagine it's good for baseball. Really, when you have good teams that have to go head to head in their division, especially when there's a geographic connection, it probably gets more people involved.
"Everybody's made a lot of Chicago-St. Louis over the years, but now you have two teams that are playing at a high level. You also have Pittsburgh in that mix, but from a geographic standpoint they're just not that close."