CHICAGO -- The Cubs are growing up, and at just the right time.
On Sunday, they lost to the Cardinals, 4-3, and weren't able to complete a sweep of their final regular-season series with their rivals, but after winning just two of the first nine meetings, the Cubs went 4-2 in the last two series vs. St. Louis.
"I could not be more proud of our guys," Chicago manager Joe Maddon said. "It's obvious that we're playing on the same level as they are now. I'm really proud of our guys for that and how far we've come in one season to get to this particular game today.
"[The Cardinals] win, give them credit. But I think now we know we can beat them and they know we can beat them, too, and that's a good thing."
The Cubs were seeking their first sweep of the Cardinals in a series of any length at Wrigley Field since July 27-30, 2006, and loaded the bases in the eighth, but right fielder Jason Heyward caught Addison Russell's fly ball and threw out Anthony Rizzo at home with a perfect strike. Then closer Trevor Rosenthal entered and got a four-out save.
After the early meetings this season, Maddon said he felt the Cardinals "out-experienced" the Cubs, who have been relying on rookies Russell, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. The Cubs vs. Cardinals series symbolizes what the Cubs have done this season. They've matured, and now have a chance at their first postseason berth since 2008.
"You grow from those moments," Maddon said. "Right now, as a group, the galvanizing as a group, you can just feel how we've grown as a team. Spring Training, came together, I didn't know anybody, they didn't know me. A lot of the players were getting to know each other, a lot of young guys.
"I think we're learning to play the game properly, meaning hard, fundamentally sound. Things don't work out, nobody cries, complains, makes excuses, and then you get ready for the next moment. We've had some bad days and come back and played really well. All those things matter when you get to this juncture."
Maddon has stressed taking it one game at a time, and as cliche as that sounds, it's worked. Chicago has won 87 games under him, and only three Cubs managers have recorded more wins in their first season at the helm: Johnny Evers (88 in 1913), Jim Frey (96 in 1984) and Dusty Baker (88 in 2003).
If the Cubs are to get to the promised land, as Maddon calls the World Series, they will likely have to face the Cardinals again.
"Obviously, the ultimate goal is through them," Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said of the Cardinals. "They've proven they can do it year in and year out. We haven't. The way we've been playing baseball this year, I don't see why we can't compete with these guys, if not beat them."
In the last week, the Cubs have gone 3-1 vs. the Pirates and now 2-1 against the Cardinals. That's a pretty good week.
"If you're a Cub fan," Maddon said, "you've got to be pretty proud of your boys."
Said Russell: "I think we can play with them; I know we can play with them."