The Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals revived their rivalry in St. Louis this week, playing three games in a historic matchup that goes back over 100 seasons. The Cubs lead the current head-to-head standings, 1,198-1,147 as of this moment — not including a 3-1 playoff record.
Many believe that the Cubs are the favorite to win the National League Central division this year, despite a rough injury early on. But the past shows that the Cardinals may have a lot to say about it, too. History hasn’t been as kind to the Cubs as it has to the Cardinals, but the interesting thing is that 2015 — while it was the first time the two teams met in the playoffs — wasn’t the first heated pennant chase between the longtime rivals.
There were several years in which both teams played deep into the summer with the hope of grabbing a playoff spot, just like they intend to do this year. So let’s look at the top five seasons (prior to 2015) when the Cubs and Cardinals were both contenders in their division.
This season is known as the last time the Cubs made a trip to the World Series. They lost that year, of course, to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. But what many have forgotten was just how good the Cardinals were that year, too. St. Louis won 95 games and finished just three games behind the 98-win Cubs, cutting the lead in the division to just 1.5 games with only four remaining in the regular season.
Things didn’t work out for the Cubs, who didn’t return to the postseason until 1984 and didn’t win a postseason series until 2003. The Cardinals, on the other hand, won the World Series the very next year before enduring a somewhat lengthy postseason drought as well — lengthy from their point of view, at least.
Most remember the 1989 season for the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s World Series, and many remember the dramatic NLCS face-off between Jack Clark and Mark Grace. But did you recall that the Cubs battled the Cardinals into September for the NL East division? As of September 8, the Cardinals were just a half-game behind the first-place Cubs in the division, with a 77-63 record.
This season even ignited a little bad blood between the rivals, with a mid-summer brawl for good measure. The Cardinals didn’t perform well down the stretch, however, finishing the year 9-13 to the Cubs’ 15-6. Seeing that the Cardinals finished seven games behind the Cubs — and a game behind the New York Mets, too — simply wouldn’t tell the story of what a tight battle it was between the Cubs and the Cards for much of the season.
Neither the Cubs nor the Cardinals won the division in 2001, but the Cards settled for taking the wild card after losing a tiebreaker to the Houston Astros. The Cubs finished five games back with an 88-74 season, but that doesn’t do justice to how close the divisional race was for much of the season. The Cubs held as much as a six-game lead in the division in June and were in first place as late as mid-August. But a big part of why the Cubs missed the playoffs in ’01 was due to a hot finish by the Cardinals.
On September 3, the Cubs were three games behind the Astros in the division and three games ahead of St. Louis. At that point, they also held the National League wild card. But the Cards went on a 19-6 run to finish out the season, with the Cubs sputtering to an 11-14 finish. St. Louis lost in the NLDS to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who eventually won the World Series.
The 2003 season is most remembered for the Cubs’ epic seven-game NLCS battle against the then-Florida Marlins, but there was an interesting divisional race in August and September as well. St. Louis actually began September of ’03 with a one-game lead over the Astros and a 2.5-game lead over the Cubs. Coming off three straight playoff appearances, the Cardinals looked like they would be the favorite to finish the season in first place.
But the Cards and Cubs had a five-games-in-four-days series (due to an earlier rainout) in Chicago beginning September 1, and the Cubs took four of those five games. They were 1.5 games behind Houston with about a week to go in the season, but the Cubs took care of business against the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, allowing them to clinch the NL Central on the second to last day of the season.
Everyone remembers the fun, back-to-back division champions of the 2007 and 2008 seasons, but few remember that the 2009 Cubs actually spent a decent amount of the season battling with the Cardinals for first place.
After essentially sitting out the division race the two years prior, the Cardinals bounced back in a big way in ’09 and eventually won the division by 7.5 games over the disappointing 83-win Cubs — before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. But for a while, it was pretty close. The two teams were tied atop the standings as late as August 5, with the popular belief being that the Cubs would kick things into gear and run away with it down the stretch.
But the exact opposite happened, as the Cardinals went 32-20 — best in the National League — the rest of the way while the Cubs played to just a 26-29 record. That marked the official closing of the championship window for the Carlos Zambrano, Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, and Aramis Ramirez era in Cubs history.
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