Cubs at Cardinals: Halfway Point

In a three-game weekend home series, the St. Louis Cardinals attempt to defrock the season's first-half champions, the Chicago Cubs

They have a heck of a team, balanced and plucky, the kind that you only see around here once every hundred years or so. They have a heck of a manager, a man who is the spiritual heir of Leo Durocher, the last man to have lost his last marble in nearly bringing the Chicago Cubs to the summit. And they have the best record in the National League at the season's halfway point.

And, in the St. Louis Cardinals, they have but one challenger willing to give them a fight for the division.

This blockbuster holiday weekend features, as it often does, multiple match-ups of eternal rivals – Cubs/Cards, Yankees/Red Sox, and Giants/Dodgers. For the first time in many years, though, our Midwestern scrum is the legitimate headliner.

The world will be watching this series, the first in more than a month that could threaten to put the Cubs in second place. It's big in a way that almost beggars description, two intense rivals meeting as if with a clang of blue steel before the judgment of the gods of baseball themselves. The Cubs must prove they are worthy of their supposed 100-year Destiny, while the Cardinals play the heels, charmed champions of the gods certain to be booed by the horde of underdog mortals who are championed by the men in blue.

The Cubs return two heroes and noted Cards-killers, Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez, from the infirmary for the series' opening start, but still have Alfonso Soriano on the sidelines. The Cardinals benefit from the shockingly early return to health of their own gladiator, Albert Pujols, but now rely on an unconventionally ace-less starting rotation without its two best pitchers and a bullpen that is now swollen to eight men – including the ghost of Mark Mulder – in effort to provide fresh arms.

Despite their apparent vulnerabilities, the Cardinals appear to possess that intangible ability, as they have with Tony La Russa's best teams, to win the games they should and plenty more of the games they shouldn't. Wednesday's win over the Mets, endangered once by rain and again by a terrible relief performance from Mulder, but rescued by Chris Duncan's ephemeral power stroke and Troy Glaus' just-barely blast, is a perfect example.

It is a quality that the Cubs, too, have shown in the early going, but mostly in the comfort of their home ballpark. Having suffered five losses in the first seven games of this ten-game trip, the would-be contenders drop their road record overall to an unremarkable 18-25. They have suffered from equal doses of bad pitching and bad luck on this trip, despite a still-dangerous offense powered by Derrek Lee and the surprisingly effective Jim Edmonds.

Chicago has been slow to warm to the concept of Jim Edmonds, Cubs hero, just as the fans in St. Louis have been slow to remove him from their good graces. However, in his 36 games as a Cub, he has hit .294/.391/.587 with eight homers, a better stretch of games than he has had since 2006, and far better than he looked before being released by the San Diego Padres in May.

Now 38 years old, he could have called it a career after getting axed near his home by the Pacific. When rumors swirled of the Cubs' interest in signing him, the sentiment passed around here was "Why come back?" His legacy was seemingly secure, with championship rings in each league. However, the Cardinals clubhouse leader during the '06 playoffs clearly felt he had something to prove – not only to himself, but to the management here that cut him loose.

He has been the best hitter on his new team, or near to it, leading the Cubs in home runs and RBI during the month of June, and single-handedly delivering at least two wins with his now famous assortment of late game heroics. Even more endearing to his new fans on the North side, he was "ripped" by Ozzie Guillen during the climactic six-game Interleague series against the White Sox.

In his first return to St. Louis since switching sides, Edmonds has understandably mixed emotions, and expects to hear a mixed reaction from the crowd, which itself is always a patchwork of red and blue shirts during these packed-house affairs. Some in red will boo the blue uniform on his back, while others applaud him for his years of service to the 'Birds, but both will feel slightly guilty about it. 

Those emotions become even more roiled when one considers what may be ultimately at stake – if Edmonds plays a significant part in a prodigal Cubs championship, it may do for his Hall of Fame chances what a bloody sock once did for Curt Schillling's.


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