You better believe the Cardinals have their hopes of winning it all. They might be at their most dangerous when you don't see them coming, and this could be that kind of year.
Nothing would be sweeter for the Cards than dashing the Cubs' chance to repeat, and it took zero time for them to identify Carlos Martinez as the guy most likely to lead them on a long ride. They'll need other heroes too, and Mike Matheny believes that this season he might just have a whole clubhouse full of them, including Randal Grichuk and Jose Martinez, the late difference-makers in a 4-3 victory for the Cardinals on Sunday night.
On the first night of the 2017 season, the World Series champion Cubs found themselves at Busch Stadium, surrounded by Clydesdale-drawn wagons, Hall of Fame players and managers, and all those fans wearing red. Commissioner Rob Manfred was there too, among 47,566 in attendance, and while this was only the first game in the 162-game marathon, it was clear from the start this would be special.
The Cubs were confronted with the challenge of hitting triple-digit fastballs and swing-and-miss sliders from Martinez, and then the reality that the Cardinals' lineup is pretty darn solid too. They were left with a hollow feeling after Willson Contreras' game-tying home run in the ninth inning was turned into a footnote by a rally in the St. Louis ninth.
Hey, this was the Cardinals' day. They started it by announcing the three-year, $60 million extension to cornerstone catcher Yadier Molina, and ended it with Grichuk's long single off Mike Montgomery in the ninth inning, triggering a celebration in the stands.
"You've got to start with the right foot,'' Molina said. "That's what we did tonight.''
This was sweet for Matheny, the Cardinals manager who embraced the chance to throw his 25-year-old ace against the Cubs on Opening Night. He sent his closer, Seung Hwan Oh, in after Martinez for what would have been a five-out save and wound up letting him throw a career-high 38 pitches.
It's tough to think he would have done this against the Brewers or the Reds, but this was against the defending champs on Opening Night, and that gets your blood pumping.
"It's a huge win,'' Matheny said after the winning rally, which started with a one-out double by Jose Martinez, the 28-year-old rookie who hit .384 in Triple-A two years ago.
Let's be clear about something. The Cubs may have finished 17 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals last season, but there's no way they're ever going to take them lightly, not when they have the pedigree -- 11 championships, 23 pennants -- and play them so tough.
Last year's season series wasn't decided until the 19th game, when the Cubs won to take the series, 10-9.
These are the kind of games that these teams have played since the Cubs added Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber in 2015. If anything, the games could be even more intense this season with Dexter Fowler leaving the Cubs to sign a five-year deal with the Cardinals.
While the Cubs were making their own history last season, the Cardinals were dealing with a drop from 100 victories to 86 and the end of a five-year run of qualifying for the postseason. They're looking for their 10th consecutive winning season and a lot more this time around.
"I always like my team,'' Matheny said. "But there's a little different air around this team. There was a little bit of an edge, a chip on their shoulders the first day we walked in this spring. Mix in that players are maturing into [having] a little bit more of a voice, and all of that has created an atmosphere that has been very positive but also very intentional -- intentional about getting better, intentional about making it look right.''
There's no question about the Cubs' talent level. They're at least as strong as they were last season, when they won 103 games and probably should have won a few more. But will they have as much fun? Will they be as prepared? Will they carry themselves the same way?
Cubs manager Joe Maddon couldn't feel better about all of that.
"I'm proud of the way we went about it,'' Maddon said. "Honestly, if you walked into our clubhouse during camp, I don't think you could have recognized that we just came off winning the World Series. To me, that really blew my mind. The work was spectacular. The leadership was there. The young guys are still striving to get better.''
Maddon was in a playful mood Sunday. He said he started Jason Heyward in center field and Ben Zobrist in right as a "World Series tribute,'' not a reflection on the new center-field platoon of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay.
It wasn't a surprise Maddon was hitting Jon Lester eighth and Javier Baez ninth, not with Schwarber in the leadoff spot. Schwarber looked just fine as the leadoff man, too (2-for-3 with a double and a hit-by-pitch), and caught everything he had a chance to catch in left.
The only thing wrong with the Cubs was they were facing Martinez for 7 1/3 innings, and he wasn't giving up anything. The march to October has begun, and don't be surprised if it includes teams on both ends of this rivalry.