They're Heeeere… Cubs at Cardinals

The marquee rivalry of the National League is rejoined. Check your livers, advises columnist Will Horton.

The Cubs and their beer-soaked, blue-cloaked caravan of fans are coming to Busch Stadium to close out the season's longest home stand. With their arrival and the opening anew of this generations-old rivalry, we can finally say that the season has officially started. So can the stadium's grounds and maintenance crew, who will certainly be using every man-hour of the three-day weekend cleaning up after thrown foodstuffs, and will be using every corner of the stadium's security facilities to house fans who become a little too saturated in spirits.

If the series against Chicago were a season unto itself, the Cards would not have a lot to cheer about in the last three years. Our men in red have dropped at least 10 games per season, putting up a sorry 19-32 record over that span. And frankly we should be embarrassed by this. The Cubs teams that have been beating us have not been all that good. Last year, we couldn't even defend our own house, dropping 7 of 9 games at Busch and failing to win a single series at home against a mediocre 85-win jugger-not that was swept unceremoniously from the playoffs in three forgettable games.

The Cardinals franchise has turned over every leaf it could think of between now and then, putting as much distance in 29 games as they can between them and the smoldering tire fire of 2007. If the Cards want a true test of their newfound mettle, this series is it.

The Cubs rejoin this rivalry looking like the 800-pound gorilla of the Central, with a 12-6 record in the division after Thursday's last-minute 4-3 loss to the Brewers . They are 17-11 overall with a 50-run differential, and have just set the franchise mark for wins in April. They've upstaged the Mets and are jousting with the young Arizona Diamondbacks for early prominence in the National League.

Rather than wilting from the call of destiny, these Cubbies are playing with their hair on fire, as if they are strongly motivated to end their century of failure.

Outside of one major import, the Northsiders have kept the majority of their 25-man roster intact from the end of last season. Only a couple of deck chairs have been rearranged: Kerry Wood is now closing games that Ryan Dempster is starting, rather than the other way around, explosive young catcher Geovanny Soto is starting more than sitting, and Reed Johnson is burying bad memories of Jacques Jones in centerfield.

It took a lot of coin for the Cubs to reverse tide after sinking to 96 losses in 2006, especially since the top level of minor league talent has little more to contribute in the short term. So perhaps it isn't surprising that GM Jim Hendry might let his bets ride.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Hendry's free-agent bonanza is that much of the money appears to have been spent well. (Granted, Jason Marquis was a bum and is a bum, but as bums go he manages to be league-average for his $7 mil.) And while few of this team's stars are young, most of the team's core money earners – Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Marquis – are windowed together in or near their early thirties, which should provide at least a couple more seasons of high-level production before age and inevitable decline catch up. There are no Jeff Kents, Steve Finleys, or Luis Gonzalezes on this roster, no players whose names cast a much longer shadow than their rapidly eroding skills.

The big spender was able to dig a little bit deeper this past offseason, signing Kosuke Fukudome (right) to a contract worth $48 million over four years. (Unlike the arcane blind-bidding process for previous Japan League all-stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Cubs were not required to pay a "posting fee" for the right to sign Fukudome. The thirty-year-old outfielder entered MLB as an unrestricted free agent.)

Fukudome (pronounced fu'-ku'-DOUGH-may, clipping the first two syllables) becomes the Cubs' first-ever Japanese player, and has taken over the cherished right-field position previously held by franchise icons Sammy Sosa and Andre Dawson. Showing no aversion to the spotlight, Fukudome went 3-for-3 in his first game at the hallowed grounds of Wrigley. With a dramatic homer, he drove in three game-tying runs in the ninth inning of that contest. After a long spring of anticipation, it has been love at first sight for the bleacher bums.

With Fukudome's help (.327/.436/.480 at gametime), the Cubs have transformed their offense into a much more patient and potent bunch. Having finished worst in the league in on-base percentage in Dusty Baker's last year as manager, the blueshirts currently lead the league in batting average and runs scored, and are second (to the Cardinals) in on-base percentage and walks.

Amazingly, their runs total could be a lot higher than it already is. The Cubs don't have a true power threat after the resurgent Lee and the steady Ramirez, and their isolated power (measuring only extra bases per at bat) is only slightly above the middle of the pack. This translates to a lot of ducks left out on the pond: the Cubs' rate of 228 runners left on base is second only to the Cardinals' 242.

Both teams' pitching staffs are similarly constructed: each has a true #1, and then a bunch of guys who take the mound and occasionally put up good starts. However, while these average joes have been largely schlepping away for the Cubs, pacing their team for six innings and three runs at a time, the Cards' journeymen (and the dramatically improved team defense behind them) have been true difference makers so far.

The Cardinals and their fans always have a fight on their hands when the Cubs come to town. This year we may have the rare good fortune of seeing two good teams on the field when it happens. Power and patience versus pitching and defense, and a little of vice versa as well.

How did that old slogan go? "Baseball the way it oughta be?" Sounds about right.

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