The most anticipated Cubs-Cardinals series since 2004 begins Friday night in Busch Stadium with a couple of juicy subplots added to the mix.
Carlos Zambrano's return from the disabled list and Jim Edmonds' return to his old stomping grounds could add some fireworks in the 2,213th game of the 116-year-old rivalry.
Before the Cubs lost 8-3 to San Francisco on Thursday to fall to 2-5 on this 10-game trip, manager Lou Piniella was asked about the notion St. Louis manager Tony La Russa was doing his best job in years keeping the Cardinals in the hunt.
"Tony has done a lot of good jobs," Piniella said. "Tony is a very capable manager, a future Hall of Famer, and he does a nice job year-in and year-out. Knowing him, he relishes that role of underdog. This year that's exactly what they're doing.
"But you take a look. … They have power at the corners, they have power at two of the three outfield positions and they do a real good job with their pitching. So it doesn't surprise me, no."
Piniella may be the only one who's not surprised at the Cardinals' success, or he might be trying to temper expectations from Cubs fans that his talented team would be running away with the Central Division.
"This is a good series," Derrek Lee said. "They're the closest guys behind us, we're getting 'Z' back, and this is a series where you could put some separation. They have been right on us all season. People put a lot [of importance] on those White Sox games, but these games really mean something in the big scheme of things."
The Cubs have lost 10 of 16 games since their Hall of Fame trip to Cooperstown and are 9-11 since Alfonso Soriano went on the DL on June 12. The starting pitching has been inconsistent the last two weeks, with a 6.32 ERA over the last 10 games.
"Over our last three series, our starting pitching hasn't been very good at all," Piniella said. "We've been hit fairly good. We have to shore that up a little bit. Maybe it coincided with Zambrano's absence. We'll see."
The return of Reed Johnson from the DL and Aramis Ramirez from a three-day trip to the Dominican to tend to family matters did little to pick up the offense against Tim Lincecum, who improved to 10-1 with his sixth straight victory.
San Francisco scored four runs in the second off Sean Gallagher and a shaky defense. Edmonds took a poor route on Fred Lewis' RBI triple to give the Giants a 3-1 lead, and catcher Geovany Soto botched a pop-up off Ray Durham's bat that brought home another run.
The Cubs pulled within a run at 4-3, but Lee struck out with the tying run on third in the seventh. Then Carlos Marmol served up a three-run homer to Rich Aurilia in the bottom of the inning to give the Giants a comfortable lead.
Now it's on to St. Louis, where Zambrano faces Braden Looper on the 4th of July in a showdown of the NL's two winningest teams.
"They have a nice ballclub," Piniella said. "What people don't realize is that names don't win ballgames for you. Production does, and they're producing."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times