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Cards could have say in Central race

Cards could have say in Central

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs' road to a third straight divisional title may not be as blissfully free of obstacles as previously imagined. In the second week of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals are looking like a large and reasonably effective obstacle.

Before the 2009 season started, the Chicago Cubs were the runaway favorites to win the National League Central for the third straight time. And why not?

The Cubs had the NL's best record in the 2008 regular season, winning 97. Not only that, they had the league's best record over the last two seasons. And far from suffering serious personnel losses over the last winter, they had added balance to their lineup with the acquisition of switch-hitting Milton Bradley.

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There remained the nagging reminder of the Cubs being 0-6 in the last two postseasons, but first things first; there are still five-plus months of baseball before another October appears. On the optimistic side, the Cubs would be as good as last year and nobody else in the division could compare. There were valid reasons for this approach. Milwaukee, the second-place Central team in 2008, had lost its two best starting pitchers. Cincinnati has young talent and should improve, but it was 23 1/2 games behind the Cubs last year and will not make up that much ground in a single season. Houston doesn't have enough pitching. Pittsburgh hasn't had a winning season since sometime in the previous century.

And the St. Louis Cardinals, the group that has won this division six times in the last nine seasons? They had basically overachieved to win 86 games in 2008. This season again they would be scrappy, they would be admirable, they would have all the positive traits that a Tony La Russa team always has. But on paper, while they looked like a winning team, they didn't appear to have the depth of talent that the Cubs have assembled.

But now that the argument has left the on-paper stage and moved to actual ballparks, the Cardinals' chances don't seem so far-fetched. This may have something in general to do with their 8-3 first-place record. And it may have something specific to do with the fact that on Thursday in the 2,225th renewal of the Cubs/Cards dispute, they beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field, 7-4.

It was a very commendable afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The sky was completely blue. The wind was blowing, but it was not howling. You were, of course, reminded that spring does not rush to the Upper Midwest by the game-time temperature of 48 degrees. And the ivy on the outfield walls was still wearing its winter color, brown.

But the heat is always on, one way or another, when the Cardinals and the Cubs play. This rivalry has persisted through years, the decades, and now, the centuries. It is better when both teams are roughly at the same level in the standings, but even when that does not happen, it is still better than good. The Cubs were 11 1/2 games better than the Cardinals last season. There is an excellent chance that the Cubs are still the best team in the National League, October aside. But there is also an excellent chance that the Cardinals are closer to the Cubs than expected.

"St. Louis has a good ballclub," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "They're leading the league in runs scored. Tony always does a nice job with his ballclub. They're going to be a good challenge for us, and the rest of the division."

The Cardinals are averaging nearly six runs per game. "They swing the bats," Piniella said.

This may be an unlikely pace for an entire season, but it does indicate the kind of run-production the Cardinals can muster. Albert Pujols may be the best all-around hitter in the game, and he can find plenty of assistance elsewhere in the St. Louis lineup.

The Cubs, meanwhile, are 5-4 without necessarily approaching their best work. Their bullpen has been erratic, and it still was on Thursday. After the Cubs grabbed a 4-3 fifth-inning lead on a three-run homer by Kosuke Fukudome, their relievers gave up four runs over the next three innings.

Piniella was asked if it was too early to be concerned about his bullpen. "Early? It's 4:30 in the afternoon," Piniella said with a smile.

Then again, the manager wasn't all that happy with the other half of the game, either. "I'm not crazy about the way our offense is functioning," Piniella said.

It could be argued that the Cardinals are merely on an early-season tear, while the Cubs have simply not hit their stride yet. But the fact that the Cardinals have won seven of the last eight games probably should not be held against them.

The Cubs, on their overall talent level and the quality depth of their starting rotation, are still the NL Central favorites. But what they're in for over the next five months, thanks to the Cardinals, looks much more like a race than a cakewalk.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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