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Cubs justifying Maddon's early optimism

Manager has club believing in greater heights than second NL Wild Card spot

ST. LOUIS -- What started as a glorious day for baseball turned into something more specific: A glorious day for the Chicago Cubs.

Any time the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals play meaningful games in September is a special time. This rivalry, like any rivalry, is at its best when both teams are genuine contenders. The Cubs haven't been contenders for the last five seasons. But they certainly are now.

Labor Day at Busch Stadium held plenty of promise in that way. This was the start of a three-game series between the Cardinals, who have the best record in baseball, and the Cubs, who have the third-best record in the National League. At this point, that would get them only the second NL Wild Card berth, but this season has still been a breakthrough campaign for the Cubs.

Labor Day became another sort of breakthrough for the Cubs. They had been 1-6 at Busch Stadium this season. They are 2-6 now. But their holiday victory was much more emphatic than that. The Cubs beat the Cards, 9-0.

With this victory, the Cubs moved to 7 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, but more to the immediate point, two games behind the Pirates for the top Wild Card spot. There is very little need for the Cubs to be looking over their shoulders at the trailing Wild Card competition. The nearest pursuers, the Nationals, are 8 1/2 games behind the Cubs for the second Wild Card spot.

The Cubs' performance here fed into what Cubs manager Joe Maddon hoped would be the approach by his club on its 11-game road trip, which includes stops in St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

Video: [email protected]: Haren tosses seven scoreless frames in win

"I kind of love it; I hope our guys love it as much," Maddon said. "This is what it's supposed to be like this time of year. You have to beat the better teams to be the best team. So let's go. Let's do this thing."

All the work, from Spring Training through the first half of the season, grinding through the heat of August, is supposed to get you to a game very much like this one. These baseball games now are meant to be savored.

"Absolutely," Maddon says. "I love it. You work hard to get to this point, meaningful games. Let's go play."

There were those who thought that Maddon's earlier talk of the 2015 Cubs qualifying for the postseason was premature and likely to end in disappointment this season. In fact, it now appears that Maddon's comments were right on time.

Video: [email protected]: Cubs power five runs in the 3rd inning

"We talked about the playoffs from Day 1," the manager said. "You never want to set your goals too low. The problem with that is then you hit them. So set your goals high. Never run away from expectations or the word pressure. Run toward them. There's really good stuff attached to the other side."

The Cubs were merely 73-89 last year, but they were competitive against the Redbirds, posting a 9-10 record. The Cardinals don't have any expectations that include an easy time against the Cubs.

"We saw this time last year that it was a radically different-looking team," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "They brought in all these young players. You could see that the talent level was there and they were making a commitment to fill any holes that they had.

"We had trouble with them last year. They've always played us tough, and I just don't think that's going to change. It's one of those rivalries where it just kind of brings out the best in everybody. I look around [Busch Stadium], and I'm surprised at how many blue jerseys and outfits I see in the stands. And we know this is a team that is good."

Video: [email protected]: Fowler leads off the game with a homer

The presence of a sizable group of Cubs fans here meant that there were people in the capacity crowd of 45,986 who really enjoyed themselves.

Dan Haren gave the Cubs seven strong innings. Dexter Fowler set the tone offensively with a leadoff home run. Addison Russell made it an 8-0 game with a three-run home run in the third. Yes, the Cubs scored early and often.

There were questions about the races the Cubs are involved in and whether catching the Cardinals was still a feasible proposition. Maddon suggested that catching the Pirates would be a more basic order of business. But then he stated the most basic premise:

"Let's just play [Tuesday night] like we played today."

The Cubs' 1-6 record at Busch Stadium had been built on a handful of games in May and June. The Cubs believe they are a different team, a better team, now.

"Our team is entirely different," Maddon said. "We're playing with a lot more confidence. We believe a lot more."

That translated into a big Labor Day road victory, a win so convincing that it seemed to open up possibilities for the Cubs.

"I don't see guys settling for a second Wild Card," Haren said. "I see a push for more."

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
Read More: Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals