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A rare Cubs-Cards race comes down to the wire

With series starting Thursday, a look at some past pennant chases
@williamfleitch
September 18, 2019

Starting Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals and the Cubs, those two perpetual rivals of the Midwest, will play seven games over the next 11 days that will determine the National League Central, the NL Wild Card and maybe just the futures of both franchises. The Cardinals haven’t made

Starting Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals and the Cubs, those two perpetual rivals of the Midwest, will play seven games over the next 11 days that will determine the National League Central, the NL Wild Card and maybe just the futures of both franchises. The Cardinals haven’t made the playoffs since 2015 and have a fanbase starving for October baseball; the Cubs have taken a step back every year since winning the World Series in '16 and might be in danger of cleaning house in the offseason. There is so much on the line between the teams over the next week-plus that it’s almost overwhelming.

And that’s not even accounting for the Brewers, who are right in the thick of this as well and perhaps most poised to benefit from the Cubs and Cardinals beating each other up for the next week. (And, lest we forget, the actual defending division champs.) Not to mention the Nationals, who could very well ensure that only one of the Cardinals and Cubs (or possibly none, if the Mets and Phils get hot) makes the postseason.

It’s going to be a crazy stretch run. And, considering how long the Cardinals and Cubs have been rivals and in the same division, it’s relatively rare that the two teams are battling for a playoff spot late. Even though both franchises have had plenty of success throughout the years, they usually aren’t great at the same time.

The Cardinals have won the NL Central in 1996, 2000, '02, '04-06, '09 and '13-15.

The Cubs have won the NL Central in 2003, '07-08 and '16-17.

The number of times each team’s rival has finished second in the division? Twice, in 2009 and '16, and the closest distance between them was 7 1/2 games. It’s just the luck of how it has turned out.

But we’ve still had some races, though none as good as this year’s. Here’s a look at some past Cardinals-Cubs pennant chases.

2015: Beginning of a “Cubs era”
This was the pivot year, the year that the Cardinals, who were about to win their third straight division title, started to become fully aware of the Cubs menace. The Cubs announced their arrival on the scene by signing Jon Lester to add to their growing stable of young talent, but the Cardinals weren’t letting go of the division without a fight. That Cardinals team, without any major stars, clawed its way to its first 100-win season since 2005, and they needed every single one of them: The Cubs finished the year with 97 wins, which somehow left them third in the NL Central, a game behind the Pirates.

The Cubs would have their revenge in the playoffs, beating Pittsburgh in the Wild Card Game and setting up the first-ever Cardinals-Cubs postseason series. It started out excellent for the Cardinals, with a Game 1 victory behind a Tommy Pham home run off Lester, but the Cubs then blitzkrieged the Cardinals in the next three games, culminating in Kyle Schwarber’s famous home run over the top of the new Wrigley Field scoreboard in right field in the Game 4 clincher. It changed the whole dynamic of this rivalry: The Cubs would win the World Series the next season … and that Game 1 Cardinals win remains their most recent postseason victory.

2003: Prelude to Bartman
History has cemented this as the Steve Bartman year -- though in a just universe, it’d be known as the Alex Gonzalez year -- but it has been forgotten just how tight of a race the NL Central was this season. The two teams were battling with Houston (yes, kids, Houston was in the NL Central, and for a long time too!) most of the summer, and when the Cardinals came into Wrigley Field over Labor Day for a whopping five-game series, they were tied with the Astros and 1 1/2 games up on the Cubs. But Chicago won four of the five games to send the Cardinals reeling. The Cubs ended up taking over first place with a week to go in the season and never let go of it. The Astros and the Cardinals ended up missing the playoffs entirely, finishing behind the Wild Card-winning Florida Marlins … who were about to write an entirely new story of their own.

2001: Pujols arrives
The Cubs were in first place by 4 1/2 games on July 27, when they traded for Fred McGriff in an attempt to provide lineup protection for Sammy Sosa. But an early August skid dropped them out of first three weeks later and by the time the season was interrupted by the events of Sept. 11, the Cubs were out of the race. The Cardinals -- led by rookie phenom Albert Pujols -- ended up finishing in a tie for first with the Astros at 93-69, but the Astros won the division by virtue of winning the season series, which were the rules at the time. (Remember, when there was only one Wild Card, the advantage of winning the division was not as meaningful, so division ties were settled via head-to-head tiebreaker.) The Cardinals would go on to lose to the eventual champion D-backs in a dramatic five-game NLDS that ended on a walk-off single from Tony Womack.

To be honest, we’re only including this Cubs-Cards “race” because, as you’re seeing, the Cardinals and Cubs haven’t had very many races.

1969: Falling to the “Miracle Mets”
See? Not many pennant chases. (Though any Cubs fan who wants to remember the time Ryne Sandberg hit home runs off Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter in both the ninth and 10th innings of a nationally televised game in 1984 is free to do so, but that happened in June and the Cardinals were long out of the race by September.) The following memory will likely erase all the good feelings of the preceding one.

The first season ever for the divisional format featured the Cubs with a nine-game lead on the Cardinals and Mets on Aug. 17, a seemingly unsurmountable gap. The Cubs then collapsed in September, and while the Cardinals hung in for a while, it was the Mets who took full advantage, culminating in the infamous “Black Cat” game at Shea Stadium on September. St. Louis managed to play a part in eliminating the Cubs by beating them on Sept. 19 (in Game 2 of a doubleheader) and 20 at Wrigley Field. The Mets would clinch the NL East four days later. The Cardinals finished five games behind Chicago, but 13 behind the Mets.

And in the divisional era … that’s it. Those are all the Cardinals-Cubs pennant chases, and, honestly, we’re straining a bit with a couple of those. But not this time. 2019 features the Cardinals and Cubs atop the NL Central, facing each other with the futures and perhaps current legacies of each franchise on the line. (With the Brewers waiting to pounce either way.) The Cardinals and Cubs have been at each other’s throats for years. But it has never been like this.