ST. LOUIS -- In 2015, which was Joe Maddon's first year as the Cubs' manager, his team began the season 2-7 against the Cardinals but finished strong, taking two of the final three series. The Cardinals were the team to beat.On Monday, the Cubs opened a four-game series against the
ST. LOUIS -- In 2015, which was Joe Maddon's first year as the Cubs' manager, his team began the season 2-7 against the Cardinals but finished strong, taking two of the final three series. The Cardinals were the team to beat.
On Monday, the Cubs opened a four-game series against the Cardinals and the roles have reversed. Now the Cubs are the team to beat, leading the National League Central Division. Chicago could clinch its second straight division title in St. Louis.
Maddon said the Cardinals vs. Cubs rivalry is similar to what he dealt with in Tampa Bay playing in the tough American League East.
"It's no different than in it was in Tampa Bay with the Yankees and Red Sox," Maddon said. "When people talked about those teams, I understood why they were beating [the Rays] up. You've got to feel confidence in yourself, you've got to believe you can do it -- you've got to believe it before you can do it ever."
Some of those losses in 2015 still sting, but Maddon recalls how pumped the players were when they won the final two series. The Cubs did win the season series in 2016, 10-9, and entered Monday's game with an 11-4 edge head to head.
"This team is a proud, wonderful organization with one of the best histories in all of Major League sports," Maddon said of the Cardinals. "There's nothing that will come easily when you play against St. Louis, especially when you play here."
Jason Heyward has played for both organizations, signing with the Cubs after playing one season in St. Louis in 2015.
"After signing with Chicago, people always say, 'How do you feel about the rivalry, this and that,'" Heyward said. "When I got to the Cubs, I made it clear that we have some catching up to do as far as that goes in playoff wins and [World Series] championships and things like that. This is another opportunity to take a step in that direction."
The Cubs took a major step last year by winning the division and, ultimately, the World Series. This year, the Cubs opened the season at Busch Stadium.
"When we started the year in St. Louis, we wanted to have clinched before this," Chicago's Benjamin Zobrist said. "We're playing the kind of baseball we're capable of in the second half of this season. We find ourselves in a spot here in the last series to try to clinch. That's the goal in the next couple days."
• With the Cubs close to securing a postseason berth, Maddon and Co. would then need to sort out the club's pitching. Maddon wasn't ready to talk about the plans until the team locks in a spot.
"If you do this properly, you have time to set things up," Maddon said.
• The Cubs' center-field combo of Albert Almora Jr., Jonathan Jay and Ian Happ have done well, and the trio plus Heyward had combined for a .273 batting average entering play Monday.
"Ian's made it more complicated by getting here so early," Maddon said of the rookie, who was promoted on May 13 and was batting .253 with 22 home runs, 17 doubles and 63 RBIs prior to Monday's game. "He was not supposed to have been here right now, or earlier in the season. I had to fit him into the mix and he's got 20 homers, too."
Last season, William Fowler was the Cubs' primary center fielder, but he signed this offseason with the Cardinals.
"Dexter's wonderful and we do miss Dexter," Maddon said, "but the guys who have done it this year have done a fabulous job."
• The Cubs and Indians have the best records in the Majors in the second half. Coincidentally, both played in the World Series last year. Maybe both had a first-half hangover?
"There could be something to be said about how long and hard it was to go through what we went through," Heyward said. "We both have done a good job in the second half and know how to finish strong."
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.