Chicago Cubs getting a grip on rivalry with St. Louis
ST. LOUIS -- The Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals have been through a lot together over the centuries.
Just recently, they renewed open hostilities over hit batters.
But there's still one thing missing between these ancient rivals: playoff competition between each other.
That all changes Friday as the Cubs and Cardinals open the best-of-five National League division series at Busch Stadium. Games 1 and 2 are Friday and Saturday, with the series resuming Monday for Game 3 at Wrigley Field.
The Cardinals won the NL Central with a record of 100-62. The Cubs were third in the division at 97-65, and they knocked off the second-place Pirates on Wednesday night in the one-game, wild-card playoff at Pittsburgh.
Despite the Cubs' and Cardinals' long and storied history between them, this is uncharted territory for both. Before the wild-card age, which began in 1995 (a players strike wiped out the 1994 playoffs, the planned first year of wild-card teams), the Cubs and Cardinals could not face each other in the postseason because the teams were in the old National League East from the beginning of divisional play in 1969.
Since wild-card play began, the Cardinals have had much the better of it. And in years when the Cubs made the playoffs -- 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2008 -- the Cardinals were suffering rare down seasons.
Now, the wait is over, and these two Midwestern stalwarts are ready to go at it in the postseason.
"I didn't even realize this was the first time we had met in the postseason," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Thursday after the Cubs worked out at Busch Stadium. "I thought that was kind of interesting, but then again, it's believable if you look at how this thing plays out."
There's more than a trip to the National League championship series on the line against either the New York Mets or the Los Angeles Dodgers. With the Cubs on the rise, at least this year, might there be a changing of the guard in the offing in the NL Central?
The Redbirds have ruled the roost in the Central in recent years, and there's little reason to believe this well-run organization can't keep winning.
But the big-market Cubs have awakened, their stated goal being a run of "sustained success."
"Of course we're ready for some kind of a changing of the guard," Maddon said. "But I don't expect the Cardinals to go away. The whole division, I think, is every competitive. I know Cincinnati and Milwaukee did not have years that they would like, but they have some really nice players in both places.
"So next year could be rather interesting with all the teams, I think. But again, at the end of the day, I always preach about worrying about us and ourselves only first, and I would like to believe that the Cubs are going to get better, too, next year."
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was asked if it was "cool" that these teams are meeting for the first time in the playoffs.
"Yeah, I get the cool factor, especially for our fan bases," Matheny said. "And fan base is the heartbeat of this industry. So that means something to us. But when it comes to us and doing our business and going out and competing, it really doesn't matter."
Matheny cautioned that the Cubs' lack of playoff experience didn't hurt them against the more experienced Pirates in the wild-card game. The Cubs have talked all year about "playing the same game" no matter what the calendar says.
"We have a lot of confidence in our group," veteran catcher David Ross said. "We don't really think about the other team that much. We try to take care of our stuff in house and worry about our own guys, our own pitching, our own hitting, our own bullpen and try to go out there and put together a game plan to beat the other team."
Another veteran, left-hander Jon Lester, will pitch Game 1 for the Cubs against former Boston Red Sox teammate John Lackey. Lester experienced plenty of Red Sox vs. Yankees from his days in Boston, but Cubs-Cardinals will be a different twist.
"I was never fortunate enough play in a Yankees-Red Sox postseason," he said. "So this is, I guess, my time to figure it out to see what it's all about. Obviously coming here with the Red Sox in '13 (for the World Series against the Cardinals) and playing these guys is a little bit different than coming as a division rival, so it's going to be fun.
"Obviously, the fans are going to be pumped up. Chicago is pumped up. And I'm learning. You know this will be a good learning experience, and to be a part of this, it's an honor to be a part of it."
Keys for the CubsThe Cubs are facing a formidable foe in the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League division series. Here are their keys for beating the Cards:
1. Go beyond the Big 2: Jake Arrieta may be the best pitcher in the major leagues, and Game 1 starter Jon Lester has pitched well, especially in the second half. But those two can't pitch every game. The Cubs will need a good performance from Game 2 starter Kyle Hendricks and possibly from Jason Hammel in Game 4, if manager Joe Maddon elects to use him.
2. Finish what you finish: All season long Maddon talked of the Cubs being able to "finish" games against the Cardinals, especially in St. Louis. They showed they could do that in September. October is an altogether different animal.
3. Contain the running game: Lester may get 2 starts in this series. He has had issues throwing to the bases even though he got better late in the season. Even so, the Cardinals are sure to test him.
-- Bruce Miles