Cubs-Cards rivalry enters uncharted territory
Postseason heightens intensity of heated tug-of-war
ST. LOUIS -- Before getting started with the seemingly important stuff, there's one detail you should know about this National League Division Series that begins tonight (6:30 p.m. ET, TBS).
Should the Cubs ever find themselves with a five-run lead, the Cardinals are advised to hold runners on first base, because the Cubs will look to steal bases and push the action to extend the lead to six runs.
We know this because Joe Maddon told us so a few weeks back, when the Cubs and Cardinals were engaged in a weekend series that was so intense it was impossible not to wonder how great it would be if these rival franchises met in October.
We also have Maddon's assurance that the Cubs won't be looking to start anything.
"But we will stop stuff,'' he said.
On the heels of a hotly contested weekend turf war that saw Maddon and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny get ejected, along with pitchers Matt Belisle and Hector Rondon, Maddon's often-replayed rant -- in which he labelled the Cardinals as "vigilantes'' and asked if Tony Soprano was hanging out in their dugout -- helped reawaken a rivalry that had begun to slumber over the last decade, in large part because the Cardinals were averaging 89 wins a year, the Cubs 76.
Things were going to heat up at some point, as Theo Epstein's stockpiling of talent as Cubs president of baseball operations put the teams on more equal footing. But there's nothing like a postseason series to stir the emotions, and this one -- the first between these charter franchises -- promises to have fans in both cities talking about more contemporary events than Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio, the "Sandberg game" or the Sosa-McGwire home run duel.
The Cardinals have been one of baseball's most successful franchises, with 11 World Series titles and 19 pennants (including four in the last 11 seasons) and, from their perspective, the Cubs' new confidence is likely more than a little annoying. Maybe that's why St. Louis radio play-by-play man John Rooney has taken to sarcastically calling Maddon "The Genius'' in his broadcasts.
Make no mistake about the Cardinals' strength. They are as determined to remain the top dog in the NL Central as the Cubs are to climb over them.
The work of St. Louis scouts and coaches, resources and direction provided by chairman and CEO Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak and the deep inventory of pitching talent should keep the Cardinals as a 90-win team for the foreseeable future. Matheny should hold his own managing against Maddon, and that's saying something.
Despite the Cubs improving from 73 wins to 97 in Maddon's first season, Matheny will get Manager of the Year support for leading the Cardinals to 100 wins with a roster that was plagued by injuries, including ones to Adam Wainwright, Carlos Martinez, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. He was typically stoic when a beanball battle broke out after the Cubs' Dan Haren hit Holliday behind his ear on Sept. 18, refusing to get into a war of words.
Haren, a former Cardinal, said that the organization has historically stressed the need for their pitchers to "protect'' hitters by drilling opposing hitters.
"They've been known for doing those types of things, policing it that way," said Haren. "Sometimes it goes to a little bit of an extreme."
And should that happen?
"We're not going to put up with it,'' Maddon said three weeks ago. "From them or anybody else.''
Maddon also took a swipe at the Cardinals' reputation for playing the game the Cardinal Way.
"I never read that particular book that the Cardinals wrote way back in the day,'' he said. "I was a big Branch Rickey fan, but I never read this book that the Cardinals had written on how to play baseball."
Neither side was turning on the machismo at the Busch Stadium workouts on Thursday.
"We just go play the game,'' Matheny said. "This time of the year, you play teams as much as we play teams in our divisions, you're going to have times when, you know, whether it's just the competitive nature or whether it's tempers, whatever it is, it goes in a direction like [that recent series at Wrigley]. But for us, that's in the past. We go out and play the game and understand that we're required to go about the game the way that we think.''
Jon Lester, who faces former Red Sox running buddy John Lackey in Game 1, says that runs are too precious in the postseason for pitchers to start throwing at hitters.
"I don't think we can really worry about what happened during the regular season,'' Lester said. "This is a different time. You can't allow bad blood to boil over here and allow free baserunners, you know. The playoffs are too important to give guys free bases.''
That sounds great in theory, but just Wednesday night the Cubs cleared the benches at PNC Park in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser when the Pirates retaliated against Jake Arrieta by drilling him after he'd hit two batters.
I asked Arrieta what happened on the field for that situation to escalate so quickly, with bullpens clearing and the Pirates' Sean Rodriguez looking like he wanted to tear someone's head off.
"The playoffs,'' he answered. "There's a lot at stake. Tempers are running hot, and it is what it is. It's just the environment. It breeds that kind of intensity, and sometimes those things happen.''
You'd better believe the Cardinals haven't forgotten about Holliday getting hit in the head, nor about anything that Maddon said. As dramatic as that series as Wrigley Field was, the intrigue is just getting started.