NL Central rivalry takes center stage as Cards-Cubs face off this weekend
The National League Central is living up to advance billing after one month of the baseball season.
Four teams in the Central are at or above .500, waking up echoes of 2015, when the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs finished 1-2-3, with all making the postseason.
The Cubs beat both teams in the playoffs before getting swept out of the NL championship series by the New York Mets. That propelled the Cubs on a run of four straight postseason appearances.
It just so happens that the Cardinals and Cubs are 1-2 in the Central entering this weekend, when the Cardinals invade Wrigley Field for a big three-game series.
St. Louis was on a mission to improve last off-season after missing the playoffs three seasons in a row.
Mike Shildt replaced Mike Matheny as manager after 93 games last year and went 41-28 the rest of the way. The Cards then added hard-hitting first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and left-handed relief ace Andrew Miller.
The Cardinals were busy Thursday finishing a series at Washington. They entered the day having won five in a row and 10 of 11. They reached the 20-win mark at the earliest point in their season since going 20-6 to open 2015.
"We just compete," Shildt told the local media. "We're looking to compete in any and all situations. And every situation is a situation that calls for an approach. These guys are very sincere and smart players and talented players that are looking to take advantage of every opportunity."
In those 11 games, every Cardinals starting pitcher went at least 5 innings while allowing no more than 4 runs.
Cubs starting pitchers are on an even more impressive run. Over their last 17 starts, dating to April 11, there's only one clinker in the bunch, a 5-inning, 7-earned-run start by Kyle Hendricks on April 26. Even with that start, the Cubs starters have a collective ERA of 2.27 in their last 17 games.
The Cubs began the season 2-7, but they've rebounded to 16-12. Manager Joe Maddon sounded a similar theme to that of Shildt after the Cubs swept a two-game series Wednesday at Seattle, giving them a 4-1 record on their trip to Arizona and Seattle.
"Overall we're playing pretty good baseball," Maddon told reporters. "We didn't pitch as well in the beginning, but now we are. It's sustainable, it's absolutely sustainable. We're able to get our bullpen back in order now, going back home. More than anything, we need to continue to pitch at this level. Because we're going to face some good pitching and it's going to be 3-2, 2-1, 4-3, we need to win those games."
Russell stays at Iowa
The Cubs made it official Thursday, activating shortstop Addison Russell from the restricted list and optioning him to Class AAA Iowa. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Cubs transferred closer Brandon Morrow from the 15-day injured list to the 60-day IL as he recovers from an elbow ailment.
Russell has finished his 40-game suspension (which began last year) for violating Major League Baseball's policy on domestic violence. He had been playing in minor-league rehab games for Iowa the past week. In 6 games entering Thursday, he was batting .250 (5-for-20) with 1 home run and 7 RBI.
Earlier this week, team president Theo Epstein told reporters in Seattle that the Cubs want to get Russell into major-league game shape.
The Cubs also may not want to upset the chemistry they've built while winning. Javier Baez has been the best shortstop in the game to start the season, and the Cubs have gotten good play at second base from Daniel Descalso, Ben Zobrist and David Bote.