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cubs-cards preview part 1

when the cardinals and cubs last met april 20-21, Viva El Birdos hadn't yet launched; i was still posting over at curveblog. on the eve of that two-game set, i put up some reflections on the remarkable 19-game series these two teams played in 2004. well, remarkable from cardinal fans' perspective; for cub fans, "regrettable" might better describe it. chicago gave away the first meeting of the year on four walks in the bottom of the 9th (the last to mike matheney with two outs), setting a tone that would never change: time and again, the cardinals won games they had little business winning. without further ado, here's a repost of that article, which originally appeared april 20:

the cubs' dominance over the cardinals last year in head-to-head games can be summarized like this:

in 168 innings, the cubs allowed 151 hits and struck out 151 hitters.
in 167 innings, the cards allowed 196 hits and struck out 111 hitters.

from these numbers alone you would assume the cubs won the season series handily; and you'd become convinced beyond any doubt after looking at the hitting lines. the cubs out-oba'd the cards 347-313, outslugged them 486-448, outhit them 297-244, and out-ops'd them 833-761.

over the 19 games the cubs created 112 runs, the cards just 87. so how in god's name did the cards win the season series 11-8?

i began trying to answer that question last month, before work and life interrupted the project. i'm not going to go back and complete that long and tedious enterprise, but the larger point of it need not be lost: the cubs should have hammered the cardinals last season. if we plug the teams' runs created into the pythagorean formula, we would predict that the cubs should have won 12 of the 19 meetings last year. they won only 8 -- an 8-game swing in the standings. now consider this: after completing the 19-game series on july 20, the cards led chicago by 10 games in the standings. factor in that 8-game swing, and the cards' lead would have been just 2 games.

think that might have made for a slightly diff'nt stretch run?

and it's easy to single out four games the cubs could or should have won. there was the 1st game of the year, when the cubs outhit the cards 10-5 but walked four men in the bottom of the 9th to lose 4-3. there was the third game, on may 2, when they again walked the bases full in the last inning of a tie game and lost 1-0. there was the may 21 game in wrigley, in which the cubs hit 4 dingers but fell 7-6; and of course the last game of the series, in which the cardinals rallied from an 8-2 hole to humiliate the cubs 11-8.

above all there was the 13th meeting of the season, on june 23d. you all remember it: the cards went up 3-0, then 5-3, but fell behind 9-5 after a disastrous 6-run cub rally in the top of the sixth -- an inning so exasperating it left steve kline flipping the bird at his manager. but the cards clawed back to within a run, tied it on hec luna's sac fly, and won it on a passed ball in the bottom of the 8th. cardinals 10, cubs 9.

the game fell neatly within the season-long pattern: the cards beating the cubs despite losing by every statistical measure. in this game the cubs outhit the cards 14-9, put 21 runners on base to the cards' 14, and pounded 22 total bases to the cards' 17. for good measure they took two cardinal runners off the bases, turning a double play and nailing womack at third on a peg from the outfield. but, cubs being cubs, they left 11 men on base and committed three errors, plus the passed ball . . . .

that single game literally turned the race around. had the cubs won it (as they should), they would have pulled into a first-place tie with the cardinals. instead they fell two back, and the two became three when the cards won the rubber game the next day. the cubs came into the june 23 game on a 9-1 tear; thereafter they went 6-10, while the cards in the same span went 13-3. just like that, an apparent first-place tie became an 8-game spread.

i think that june 23 loss altered the cubs' self-image. they fell meekly 4-0 the next day in just 2 hours 14 minutes; succumbed to the cards again 6-1 and 5-2 just before the all-star break; then fell to pieces in the last series of the year, blowing that 8-2 lead in one game and throwing beanballs and tantrums in the other.

you might argue that the cardinals and cubs redefined each other last season in their head-to-head series. the cubs, preseason favorites to win the nl pennant, were exposed in their games vs the cardinals as a sloppy, immature, wastrel team, throwing away wins they would ultimately need. the cards, conversely, proved -- to themselves, as much as to anyone else -- that they could contend for the division. from that first four-game set against the cubs in late april, when st louis eked out two very tentative wins, the cardinals evolved from wannabe-contenders into a true juggernaut -- so self-assured that by the last series of 2004 they toyed with the floundering cubs, laughed in their faces.

as we watch the old rivals battle in 2005, should be fun to see if (and how) they change each other.