July 4, 2008

Biggest Cards series yet, Cubs in town for July 4th weekend

There aren't many weekends bigger than this if you're a St. Louis Cardinals fan. Or a Chicago Cubs fan, for that matter.

Cubs-Cards rivalry. NL Central lead on the line. Independence Day weekend. Jimmy Baseball's return to Busch. Zambrano v Cards. Pujols v Cubs. Red state-Blue state.

However you look at the upcoming three-game set between these two longtime rivals, the hype of the games promise to make for some bigtime entertainment for fans everywhere.

Regardless of the status of the rivaly, however, there is still baseball to be played somewhere within the mayhem. And when that mayhem starts, the NL Central standings will be affected in some way. Down 2 1/2 games, the Redbirds have a chance to directly influence their position. The Cards are currently in second place, chasing the Cubs, and with the Milwaukee Brewers a couple behind. All three teams lost yesterday.

The Brewers are at MIller Park today hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates, throwing Ben Sheets against the semi-hapless Bucs. If they win, they will gain on somebody.

But the Cards cannot worry about that. They'll have their hands (and hopefully their mitts) full with Carlos Zambrano (8-3, 3.13) and the rest of Lou Piniella's Cubs. Chicago's North-siders boast the best record in the NL at 51-35. The Cardinals are still trying to win #50, but are more than respectable at 49-38.

Today's series opener will be Zambrano's first game back off the DL, but he says he feels strong and ready to go. Piniella hopes his ace can go six innings, and has stated Zambrano is going to be watched carefully and limited to a pitch count of around 90 pitches. Reaching both limits would be considered a pretty good first outing coming off his shoulder injury.

Tony La Russa has matched Braden Looper (9-5, 4.26) against Zambrano. Looper has plenty of experience against Chicago. MLB.com reports that Looper has amassed 36 appearances against the Cubs, totally 64 2/3 innings, and maintained a 2.37 ERA.

Both teams are coming off splits of four-game series, Cards-Mets and Cubs-Giants. But it is doubtful either team is dwelling on those series. Not with such a big rivalry staring each squad in their collective faces.

The Cubs have regained hitting star Aramas Ramirez, who had been away due to personal reasons. Alfonso Soriano is returning to the field today, but not activated to play. Soriano will be taking batting practice off a tee only, recovering on the DL from a broken finger.

The Cubs have been reeling from recent injuries to Soriano and Zambrano, almost as if they were about to panic. The Cardinals, on the other hand, started the season with key players on the DL, and have had them coming and going so much that a good portion of the team knows the best places to eat in St. Louis and Memphis. (Memphis is the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate site.) The DL situation is something the Cards are used to dealing with. The Cubs are just now finding out what an impact injuries have to their current roster. The Cards have coped well with injuries; the Cubs have yet to figure that one out.

And then, amidst all the usually rivalry, you have Jimmy Baseball, Mr. Edmonds, who makes no bones about saying how much he liked St. Louis because he had put his heart and soul into the team and the city for years. Edmonds also has no problems playing for another team, even if it is the rival Cubs. Edmonds stated recently that he wasn't about to sit home and go bankrupt just because the Cardinals no longer desired his services, adding that he still needed to work.

Odds are that the Busch Stadium crowd with greet Jimmy Baseball warmly, at least to start the series.