With series win over Cardinals, are Cubs making a statement?

With series win over Cardinals, are Cubs making a statement?
May 3, 2014, 4:45 pm
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Tony Andracki

Jason Hammel had the quote of the day Saturday, and he wasn't even being interviewed.

"'Atta boy Rizzo! Congrats on your first home run of the season!" Hammel belted out through the Cubs clubhouse after the team's third straight victory, a 3-0 shutdown of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Hammel's reference to Rizzo's brain fart last month shows just how carefree this team is right now after picking up the first series win of the season.

"It's nice. Everyone around here is very loose right now, and it's a good feeling," Rizzo said.

The win ensured the Cubs' first three-game win streak since late July of last year and sunk the Cardinals to 15-16, below .500 for the first time since Oct. 1, 2007.

Are the Cubs closing the gap between themselves and a St. Louis franchise that has been maybe the top organization in baseball the last decade-plus?

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Not so fast. It's only the first week of May, and Rick Renteria's favorite phrase rings true here — this game is filled with peaks and valleys.

"It's two games," Renteria said. "There's a long season ahead of us. I'll measure where we're at at the end of the season. Is it good to put these two games behind us? Sure.

"But it's a long season. We have to maintain our approach, keep playing the game of baseball. There's going to be peaks and valleys, but right now, we're in a good place."

Everything has come together for the Cubs lately, as they beat frontline starters Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha on back-to-back days.

Hector Rondon shut the door in the ninth Saturday after allowing back-to-back singles to lead off the inning, picking up his third save and looking like the answer at closer, solidifying a bullpen that has been pitching well of late.

Rizzo continued his torrid pace, homering in his third straight game. Starlin Castro has really taken to the cleanup spot in the order and had two more hits Saturday. Junior Lake is starting to come alive, collecting three hits including the decisive two-run blast.

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Jake Arrieta returned from the disabled list and answered any questions about his ailing shoulder with 5 1/3 shutout innings, pumping fastballs in the mid-90s and showcasing the same stuff he had after coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in the Scott Feldman deal last year.

The 28-year-old righty scattered four hits and two walks and struck out seven. He has not allowed a run to the Cardinals in two career starts (12 1/3 IP).

"It reminded me a lot of my start against these guys here last year," Arrieta said. "It's nice to kinda go back to familiar situations and use those as positives leading into an outing or a game."

Arrieta admitted he had some butterflies before the game but attributed that mostly to starting a Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field — "It's pretty special, pitching here" — and settled down after a rocky start. Something has clicked for the right-hander since coming to Chicago last year, going 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in nine starts down the stretch in 2013.

As the Cubs continue on in Year 3 of Theo Epstein's rebuild, Arrieta will be a point of focus, the former top prospect who might finally be realizing his potential in the Cubs' starting rotation.

"To come out and do what he did was really nice for him," Rizzo said. "It's definitely a confidence builder for him, our rotation and everyone on this team."

After 197 losses over the last two seasons, the Cubs have kept a positive approach through a slow start — 8-17 before this three-game winning streak — and to a man, they've maintained they are a better team than their record shows.

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"We know we're a good team," Rizzo said. "It's just about getting the wins. Today, we got the win. It's just about staying with it, keep battling and scoring when we have the opportunity."

Renteria insists the Cubs won't get too caught up in this winning streak.

"We try to maintain an even-keeled approach," the first-year manager said. "We don't want to get too high. It's very difficult to win a big league ballgame.

"We've got to make sure we keep our feet on the ground because everybody we play every single night wants to beat you and we want to beat them."

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It was a little over a week ago that the Cubs blew a ninth-inning lead on a festive day celebrating Wrigley Field's 100th birthday. The home clubhouse at the "Friendly Confines" was anything but on the evening of April 23.

Saturday, it was completely different. Lake was showing off his English skills, joking with teammates that he didn't need a translator. Welington Castillo was ribbing Cubs players and staff. Castro wore a carefree smile. Emilio Bonifacio was playing DJ, and Justin Grimm was jumping off walls (seriously).

That's what winning does. It gives a team like the Cubs a chance to breathe easy and keep things light in the clubhouse, even if only for a couple days.

The Cubs will give Hammel the ball Sunday night as they go for a series sweep of the Cardinals on the ESPN game of the week. If the 31-year-old righty continues his hot start to the campaign (4-1, 2.08 ERA), I'm sure nobody in the home clubhouse at Wrigley Field will mind being on the receiving end of one of his jokes.