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Cubs Looking to Make Major Statement to Cardinals, Rest of NL

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2015

AP Images

The Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals kick off a four-game series in Missouri on Monday, and the stakes are about as high as they get in early May.

No, nothing will be settled between the longstanding foes. But there's an opportunity to make a statement, particularly for the Cubs.

You know all about this much-hyped young Chicago team, which made headlines over the winter by luring manager Joe Maddon away from the Tampa Bay Rays and inking left-hander Jon Lester to join a roster populated by burgeoning blue-chip talent.

The question now is whether the Cubbies can deliver on their promise.

After a dispiriting 5-3 loss Sunday to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs sit at 13-10, 4.5 games behind the Cardinals, who are riding a six-game winning streak.

Now, with this four-game interlude, Chicago has a chance to get back on track and send notice to St. Louis and the rest of the National League.

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Sure, this series matters to the Cardinals, too. They recently lost their ace, Adam Wainwright, to a season-ending Achilles injury. Suddenly, the defending division champs look vulnerable.

But St. Louis can call upon a remarkable run of recent success. The Cardinals have quietly marched to four consecutive National League Championship Series and brought home a Commissioner's Trophy during that span.

There is no sense of desperation in St. Louis, no panic.

Not so with the Cubs. Chicago hasn't advanced past the division series since 2003, the year of Steve Bartman and a heartbreaking NLCS defeat at the hands of the then-Florida Marlins.

Then there's the date that looms like a roiling storm cloud over Wrigley Field: 1908, the last year they held a World Series parade on the North Side.

That's a lot of history to lay at the feet of one series, particularly this early in the year. Much will happen between now and summer's end to decide the Cubs' fate—and everyone else's.

Right-hander Jason Hammel said Chicago will "find out what [it's] made of" in the St. Louis series.
Right-hander Jason Hammel said Chicago will "find out what [it's] made of" in the St. Louis series.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

But check this out: Including this four-game set, the Cubs and Cardinals will square off 10 times between now and the All-Star break. After that, they won't meet again until September.

They aren't the only contenders in the NL Central. The Pittsburgh Pirates will almost certainly be a factor, and the Cincinnati Reds have been a pleasant surprise.

But if it does come down to a Cubs-Cardinals clash, this upcoming flurry of head-to-head action could wind up being the difference.

The question: Which Chicago team will show up in St. Louis? The one that recently ripped off four straight victories and climbed within a game of the Cardinals on April 28 or the one that just lost two of three at home to the last-place Brewers?

Cubs hurler Jason Hammel had this to say of the upcoming St. Louis set, per MLB.com's Adam McCalvy and Carrie Muskat:

This is a good test. We've got to win these games. To be the best, you've got to beat the best. [The Cardinals] are hot and we're going into their territory. We'll find out what we're made of in the series.

Must-win talk a month into the season? You bet.

OK, as long as we're gazing into the future, how about this tantalizing possibility: a Cubs-Cardinals postseason matchup? It's never happened before, as Sports on Earth's Will Leitch notes:

[T]he main thing the rivalry has always lacked has been relevance. Sure, their games matter to the two teams and their fans (probably more to their fans), but they don't matter as much to baseball as a whole because the two teams are never good at the same time. They've never gotten to have their Red Sox-Yankees moment, their Aaron Boone moment, their Dave Roberts moment.

Can you imagine if David Freese would have happened against the Cubs? If Bartman happened against the Cardinals? The stakes have never been as high as they should be. We've all been waiting for the stars to align.

Will this be the year it happens? Will the next four games offer a preview of bigger things to come, of a rivalry about to shift into overdrive?

It's only May, but suddenly it feels a little like October.

All statistics current as of May 3 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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