ST. LOUIS – The early edition of Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch splashed a big headline across the top of the sports section: “CUBS STEAL THUNDER.”
The C1 front featured a wide-angle photo of the Cardinals catcher charging out of the dugout on Friday night, running with this subhead: “Chicago belts four home runs to spoil the return of Yadier Molina.”
The Cubs followed that up by splitting Saturday’s doubleheader in front of two sellout crowds at Busch Stadium (89,517 combined). Cardinal fans are going to get tired of watching Jorge Soler, the 22-year-old Cuban outfielder with the lightning swing.
This isn’t just a media creation, or an oversell by the marketing department, or team executives cozying up to prospect gurus: Soler has lived up to the hype (8-for-15, three homers, seven RBI).
That’s a bigger headline than Saturday’s ugly 13-2 Game 2 loss, which restored some order to the rivalry as Soler “only” went 1-for-4 with an RBI double.
The Elias Sports Bureau says Soler is now the first player to have an RBI and an extra-base hit in his first four major-league games since the RBI became an official statistic in 1920.
The day after hitting two homers, Soler sat out a 5-1 Game 1 victory, part of a program the Cubs believe will help him preserve his body after recovering from hamstring injuries. Logan Watkins wound up playing right field and hitting his first big-league home run, which sounds more like a Cardinal Occurrence given the history between these two franchises.
“That’s a tough act to follow,” Watkins said, “but I guess the rest of us can squeak one out every once in awhile.”
It’s not bandwagon-hopping when it’s a last-place team with a national following playing at an iconic stadium during another lost season. But Cub fans can dream about a lineup that will wear out the Cardinals (72-63): Soler, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro.
“I’m already on (the bandwagon),” manager Rick Renteria said. “Everybody wants to see it – to be able to kind of have a concrete sense of what it is. These are signs that, hopefully, we’ll chip away at some of the negativity that’s been around for a little bit.”
The Cubs haven’t fallen off the cliff after trading away 40 percent of their rotation, going 16-13 in August. While Tsuyoshi Wada (4-2, 2.79 ERA) and the bullpen got roughed up in Game 2, Felix Doubront looked like the next change-of-scenery story in Game 1.
Doubront, another Boston castoff, got the win here in St. Louis as a Red Sox reliever in Game 4 of last year’s World Series. But the talented 26-year-old lefty couldn’t stick in the Red Sox rotation, and he didn’t like pitching out of the bullpen, making it known that he wanted out of Fenway Park.
“I was thinking about it when I stepped on the mound, to feel the way that I felt in the World Series last year,” said Doubront, who gave up one run in seven innings in his Cub debut. “I was so focused the first inning. The second inning, I tried to keep up. The third inning, I came back and I was feeling that rhythm.
“This is my team now. I have to give everything – 100 percent – and go out there and win games. I’m looking forward with this team. I want to stay here and do the best job that I can.”
The Cubs need pitchers to make that leap, because they looked at the way the game is trending and bet big on young hitters.
“For sure,” Baez said, the clubhouse wants to see Bryant in September, even though team officials have repeatedly ruled out that idea. But Cub fans and the Chicago media will keep talking about the mega-prospect who will bring even more thunder to this rivalry.
“Who knows?” Baez said. “In baseball, nobody knows anything. It’s not up to us.”
Either way, the Cubs believe they have something to play for in September.
“We have to show those guys that we’re ready,” Castro said. “We have to show the other teams in our division we play hard. (We’re trying) to show those guys they have to be careful next year, because we’re coming. We’re coming to play hard. We’re coming to compete.”