VERO BEACH, FLORIDA - These Cardinals apparently believe in letting sleeping dogs lie. Or more accurately, allowing snoozing Cubs to hibernate.
Chicago’s baseball variety Cubs may be down somewhat this season, but the St. Louis’ Cardinals wouldn’t be caught dead giving them a swift kick (peck?)
They are content to tippy-toe around them.
Allow MAS to explain.
The Cubbies have been very sluggish so far this season, hovering around .500 much of the time.
This, after a year ago winning 103 regular- season games and capturing their first World Series title since 1908.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals, who finished 17½ games behind Chicago in the National League Central last year, have been quietly running neck-and-neck with the Cubs this campaign.
In an extremely tight NL Central race, Chicago currently trails surprise leader Milwaukee by 1½ games, with the Cards 2½ back.
As MAS had expected they might, the over-hyped Cubs have come down to earth this season.
Yes, Chicago has a solid ballclub. But a budding dynasty?
Umm, not so fast.
But you wouldn’t find the Cardinals players agreeing with MAS’ assessment or pot-shotting the Cubbies as possible one-year wonders, even if they thought it.
Platitudes — not potential bulletin board utterances — were the order of the day.
“It was (the Cubs’) year last season in all aspects,” Cards first sacker Matt Carpenter told MAS during a dugout sitdown. “They’re a great team and the defending world champions. We have to prove that we’re up to the challenge of overtaking them.”
Added outfielder Tommy Pham: “We know they’re a really good team and we need to play our best to have a chance to catch them.”
Other Cards echoed their teammates’ close-to-the-vest comments.
Pretty classy, ya gotta admit.
And a bit surprising, since the Cubs and Cards are probably each other’s least favorite team.
Let’s put it this way: they have a history of hostility.
In essence, the Cards just believe if they take care of their own business, everything else will take care of itself.
“I think finishing one game out of the postseason last year (after five consecutive appearances) was a good lesson for us,” outfielder Stephen Piscotty explained to MAS.
“EVERY game counts. If everyone does just a little bit more, it’s gonna make the team that much better.”
Revealed Pham: “This year everyone’s playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
“I know we have the guys to be a postseason club,” offered Carpenter. “We’re hungry and motivated to prove people wrong that are doubting us.
“We want to get back to October baseball.”
Last season’s postseason absence was due mainly to pitching problems (injuries and off-years) and a shaky defense — in an apparent departure from the traditional “Cardinals Way,” where fundamentals rule.
Has St. Louis gone back to its time-honored style? MAS asked skipper Mike Matheny.
“We’ve NEVER backed off the importance of defense,” stated Matheny emphatically. “Last season we had guys who hadn’t spent a full year in the big leagues making up three-fourths of our middle defense (the heart of a ball club afield).
“There is a learning curve, especially at those premium defensive spots,” continued Mike. “It takes a few years for guys (like second sacker Kolten Wong and shortstop Aledmys Diaz) to find their traction.”
This year, the Cards have been solid with the glove.
In addition to the young middle infielder growth, the Cards added deluxe center fielder Dexter Fowler to shore up their up-the-middle D.
“Dexter helps in all phases of the game,” offered Piscotty. “On defense, as a great hitter and base runner; he’s just a great teammate.
“He has brought a better level of life to the team,” stated Stephen. “We all feed off him.”
And that formerly worrisome pitching has stabilized.
The Cards staff has stayed relatively healthy and stingy. The Cards boast three starters with earned-run averages under 3.00.
Their team ERA of 3.91 is third-best in the National loop.
“This could be one of the best staffs in baseball,” Matheny told MAS, “whether it’s the starters or the back end of the bullpen.
“It’s time for them to take another step in their careers.”
The Card hitters, though, are scuffling. They rank seventh out of 15 NL ballclubs in team batting (at .250) and are 12th in runs scored.
They hope to improve by just continuing the Cards philosophy of “grinding” at the plate.
“My role as a position player,” said Carpenter, “is to do what I do best and have quality at-bats — that’s what all of us want to do.”
What Carpenter does best is add pop to the St. Louis attack. Matt has produced a team-high 11 HRs and 32 RBIs so far this campaign.
Pham is among the team leaders in average at .302.
“Last year, says Pham, “I was doing well and then the last month, I just fell off a cliff.
“My thinking this season is to NOT fall off the cliff.”
The promising youngster Piscotty, in just his second full MLB season, continues to grow as a hitter. Stephen is currently batting a respectable — but not great — .259.
“We’re all smart ballplayers,” noted Piscotty. “We can figure out which areas we need to focus our energy on to improve.”
As for those former lovable loser Cubs, they have NOT always been the apple of Matheny’s eye — to put it mildly. There has been bad blood aplenty.
But you have to read between his lines to pick up on it.
Mike is impervious to all the hoopla about a Cub dynasty. He says the Wrigley-ites are “just one of 30 teams” his club needs to handle.
“I spend very little time thinking about them,” stated Matheny. “People can fuss about whatever they need to fuss about. We’ve got to take care of our own business.
“We’re just trying to win our division and be the best in baseball.”
These Cardinals only wish to disturb Cubs where it matters — on the ball field.
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