Cards set to clash with Cubs in NLDS
For first time, longtime rivals meeting up in postseason
ST. LOUIS -- One of baseball's most storied rivalries is about to get its first postseason edition.
With a 4-0 victory over the Pirates in Wednesday's National League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, the Cubs earned a trip to St. Louis to meet the Cardinals in the NL Division Series, beginning Friday at 5:30 p.m. CT on TBS. Two teams that first squared off in 1882 and have played another 2,363 games against one another since have never faced off in the postseason.
That will change on Friday, when former teammates and longtime friends John Lackey and Jon Lester match up at Busch Stadium in Game 1. There are few secrets between the two NL Central rivals whose Opening Day meeting was the first of 19 regular-season meetings.
"It will be much like we've seen all year long -- just a knock-down, drag-out [battle]," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
And if there were doubts about how much hype would surround this series, let it be known that ticket requests are up and allegiances out in advance of what is expected to be an intense best-of-five series.
"After the Cubs won last night, I certainly noticed a spike in ticket requests than maybe normally for this round," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "I also noticed the requests for tickets in Chicago was high, whereas usually I don't get hit up on the road that much."
The Cardinals went 11-8 against the Cubs this season, but the Cards dropped six of their last nine meetings and lost both September series. In their most recent series, tensions boiled after Cubs manager Joe Maddon called the Cardinals "vigilantes" for hitting Anthony Rizzo twice in the series opener. Chicago hit three batters in a win the next day, before St. Louis pulled off a series-finale victory that featured a spectacular throw by Jason Heyward to preserve a one-run lead.
Overall, the Cardinals outscored the Cubs, 84-79, this season while hitting .246 with 10 homers and 53 extra-base hits. In turn, St. Louis' pitching staff posted a 3.93 ERA against Chicago's offense, which hit at a .253 clip.
"I mean, you can definitely tell, you know, the importance of it and the way people feel about it throughout the Midwest, for sure," Lackey said of a Cards-Cubs rivalry he has seen up close for the last year. "I've done the Yankees-Red Sox thing. I've done the Dodgers-Angels thing out there. I've seen a couple of pretty big ones. So I think I'll be OK."
In his first year at the helm, Maddon led the Cubs to a 97-win season, which was only good enough for a third-place finish in baseball's best division. The Cardinals finished with 100, allowing them the luxury of watching the Cubs use ace Jake Arrieta in Wednesday's win-or-go-home game at PNC Park. That means the Cards shouldn't have to contend with Arrieta until the setting switches to Wrigley Field.
The Cardinals, who opened the season in Chicago on April 5, went 4-5 at Wrigley Field.
"Every time we went to Chicago, it was a battle," said Cardinals reliever Carlos Villanueva. "The atmosphere is different. The fans think they can beat us, and they believe it now. It's different and makes it more fun, I'd say."
Villanueva has a unique perspective, too, as he came to the Cards this year after spending two seasons with the Cubs. Chicago averaged 70 wins during Villanueva's tenure there.
"I was there for two years and we were horrible," Villanueva said. "Everybody saw it. We weren't very good, but they were preparing for this. Look how quick it came for them. One year after almost losing 100 games two years in a row, they almost won 100 games. Who would have thought? They have a good team. They have a good manager."
The Cardinals will get Lester in Game 1 after facing him five times during the regular season. Though the Cardinals went just 25-18 in games started by lefties, they won four out of five against Lester. He allowed 14 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits (three homers) in 31 1/3 innings.
Also notable is the fact that the Cards swiped 12 percent of their stolen bases off Lester, who is known for having trouble throwing to bases. St. Louis was successful in eight of 12 attempts.
If the Cardinals are to become the first team since the Braves (1995-99) to advance to the League Championship Series in five straight seasons, they'll have to get past a team that not only pushed them all season, but also one that has long been their biggest rival.
"You [have] two rivaled teams already, two very good teams that won a lot of games this year and have had had some tough matchups already," Matheny said. "So there's plenty to help boost the excitement about this series, but for us, and for them, it comes down to let's just play the game. We can talk about it all we want. We can build it up all we want, but it gets down to let's go out and do this and let's see who's standing last."