In the last two seasons, no thanks to the schedule-makers, by the time the Cubs and Cardinals got around to the serious stuff, the season was over.
After a brief encounter in late April last year, the Cubs and Cards met for a real showdown in late July . . . when the Cubs were 13 games behind their archrivals.
But on the first weekend of this season, the Cubs have made a sweeping statement, which they finished with an exclamation point Sunday--an 8-4 victory at rowdy Wrigley Field.
"Outstanding weekend," manager Dusty Baker said.
It was, quite literally, a wild weekend, with the Cubs using three straight walks to start the eighth inning before Michael Barrett found a ball crossing the plate and delivered it onto Waveland Avenue.
And talk about your wild weekends: Barrett's included a tornado that sent a tree crashing into his suburban Atlanta home on Friday.
"Bittersweet," he said of his weekend, adding that his parents kept the news of the tornado damage from him until Saturday night.
He did the damage to the Cardinals on Sunday with his second homer in two days, this one turning a one-run deficit into a three-run lead.
But he was not the only hero. Jacque Jones not only got his first hit as a Cub but his first homer, a three-run shot in the fourth inning for a brief 3-2 lead.
"These games early in the season count," Jones said. "To sweep is a bonus."
It was the Cubs' first three-game sweep of the Cardinals since June 2001 and their first three-game sweep at Wrigley Field since September 2004.
It was a forgettable 2005 for the Cubs at Wrigley, where they posted a 38-43 record. But now they are 3-0 with Cincinnati coming in for a three-game series starting Tuesday.
"That was huge, huge to get off to a good start [at home], especially with some of the new additions to the stands," Barrett said. "There are more fans.
"Let's face it, our fans went through a lot last year. With us not doing what we were expected to do and the White Sox winning a World Series, what we did this weekend was something nice for them."
And most of the 39,839 were cheering at the end, the Cardinals contingent silenced by the humbling series.
Every game the Cubs win right now is important, because they are trying to keep pace with the hope Mark Prior and Kerry Wood will return from injuries by early May. Off-season pickup Wade Miller also could join the starting rotation by then, so what Sean Marshall did Sunday becomes important. The rookie left-hander is one of the starters hoping to bridge the gap until the veterans return.
While Marshall--making his major-league debut--did not survive the fifth inning and did not figure in the outcome, he did retire nine straight Cardinals at one point. He was charged with four runs, although two of them scored after he left with the bases loaded when Michael Wuertz allowed a single to Albert Pujols.
Marshall also allowed a two-run, first-inning homer to Scott Rolen--the first ball to make it over the new bleachers and onto Waveland Avenue, seven innings before Barrett's.
"The young kid pitched a good ballgame," Baker said.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," the 6-foot-7-inch Marshall said. "Overall, I was pretty pleased."
"I was really proud of him," Barrett said. "You look at the Cardinals' lineup, Wrigley Field. . . . I was very impressed with his performance."
Speaking of impressive, shortstop Ronny Cedeno boosted his average to .555 with his first 4-for-4 game. And Barrett now has nine RBIs in five games.
Barrett's take on the whole night: "Unbelievable."
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