Sports

Cardinals’ return to the playoffs goes through the Cubs and their ‘Unfriendly Confines’

When walking through Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood to Wrigley Field, the park seems to emerge from nowhere.

So many modern stadiums are built as the centerpiece of a cityscape, but Wrigley blends into its surrounding infrastructure. It comes almost as a shock to the senses with each left turn onto Addison Street as the light standards rise above the elevated train tracks.

For the St. Louis Cardinals, however, Wrigley Field isn’t delivering any surprises. Their four-game date there has been looming on the schedule all season and the Cardinals have been steeling themselves against the challenge of Confines that have been decidedly less than Friendly.

“Candidly, I know the last three or four years hasn’t been very great, but I can’t overreact to that,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt from the first base visitors’ dugout on Thursday. “This is a different team we’re bringing in than some of those other teams coming in here.

“I feel good about what we’re bringing.”

St. Louis arrived in Chicago late Wednesday night, and soon after they stepped off the plane, found themselves with a three-game lead in the National League Central Division with 10 games remaining. They widened it to four games when Matt Carpenter bailed out the St. Louis bullpen — which allowed the Cubs two runs to tie in the bottom of the ninth — by hitting a game-winning solo home run in 10th.

Still, six games remained against these Cubs. A sweep of this weekend’s four-game set would clinch the Cardinals’ first playoff berth since losing to the Cubs in the 2015 National League Division Series. It would also eliminate the Cubs from this year’s divisional race.

“Right now, we’re concentrated on winning games, no matter where we play,” Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said. “Could be here, could be anywhere else. It’s about winning games.

“It’s about us taking care of business.”

But business has been booming for the Cubs against the Cardinals at Wrigley this season. Chicago swept a three-game series May 3-5 and another June 7-9. Last season, the Cubs took six of the 10 games in Chicago, winning the final series of the regular season and eliminating the Cardinals from playoff contention in the process.

Shildt knows the history and knows the excitement that comes with games that carry so much meaning so deep into the schedule.

“There’s a lot of stimulation in this place,” Shildt said. “It’s a great environment and [the Cubs] feed off that energy, I believe. It’s exciting. It’s good for baseball. It’s good for the fan base. We’re enjoying it.”

Cardinals third baseman Tommy Edman acknowledged the importance of the series on Wednesday afternoon at his locker at Busch Stadium.

“Obviously it’s going to come down to the last two series for the division,” Edman said. “I think we’ve done a good job of kind of staying within ourselves and staying in the present and not getting too far ahead of ourselves, and as long as we continue to do that, we’ll be fine.”

“I think we do a pretty good job of just normalizing it,” Shildt said. “It’s great for the game. It creates interest. That’s what we have here is we have a high level of interest. That’s great.

“We just have to stay and play the game and that’s ultimately all we can do within our human capacity. So, we’ve got to make sure we don’t fall into a trap of making it bigger than it is.”

From a baseball perspective, though, not much could be bigger than this sprint down the stretch against the Cardinals’ biggest rival.

The Cardinals were shepherded out of the postseason by the Cubs, and must they go through them again to find their way back to the competitive success that the organization expects of itself.

World peace may not hang in the balance, but jobs and careers almost certainly do. If the Cardinals buckle under this pressure, the search for answers will be merciless.

If they stand as strong as the century-old steel skeleton of Wrigley Field, they could have reason to be the first club to celebrate in its newly renovated visitors’ clubhouse.

One St. Louis stalwart understands the simplicity.

“Now we gotta go beat those Cubs in Chicago,” pitcher Adam Wainwright said Wednesday. “We haven’t beat ‘em all year in Chicago.”

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