ST. LOUIS – If you weren’t sure that the next great rivalry in baseball was playing out before your eyes in St. Louis this week, take a second look at the first two games of the season between the Cubs and Cardinals.
“I sensed it the first game here,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said.
The Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez on Sunday and the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta on Tuesday night opened their seasons with the kind of powerful performances that suggested Cy Young ability.
Young hitters were on display for both teams, with Randal Grichuk delivering a walk-off hit Sunday for the Cardinals, and second-year Cubs catcher Willson Contreras hitting a tying three-run homer in one game, then drawing a walk and eventually scoring on young Javy Baez’s squeeze bunt in Tuesday’s fourth.
On successive days this week, the Cardinals announced a contract extension that assures the influence of veteran leader Yadier Molina for another three years, and a six-year extension for 26-year-old outfielder Stephen Piscotty. Infielder Kolten Wong, 26, is in the second year of a five-year deal. And Martinez is just 25 and under club control for four more seasons.
The Cubs fielded the youngest team in World Series history last fall.
“It’ll be cool to see how the rivalry continues to grow and how we play against each other,” said Bryant, already at 25 a 2015 Rookie of the Year and 2016 MVP. “Hopefully, we have a lot of playoff games against them.”
For all the talk of this being a rivalry for decades, the fact is it’s been a rivalry largely in name and geography only for much of that time.
Consider that if the Cubs and Cardinals both finish this season with winning records it will mark the first time since 1967-69 they’ve done that three consecutive years – only the second time since the 1930s.
“With all the young guys, especially with some of the contracts they’ve signed over they’re going to be there for a while,” pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “You you’re going to be seeing guys year in and year out. It’ll make it fun for sure.”
With the rise of the Cubs, the continued strength of the Cardinals and the added “chip on our shoulder” their manager, Mike Matheny, acknowledges this year, this rivalry could be overtaking the Red Sox and (declining) Yankees for prominence.
“I was just talking to Jon Lester about that the other day, about the years I was in New York,” said Cubs catching coach and strategist Mike Borzello, a bullpen catcher for the Yankees dynasty teams of the late 1990s into the late 2000s – when many believe the Red Sox and Yankees were at the height of their not-so-friendly rivalry.
“And then you come to this one, and I think this is building towards that,” Borzello said. “Obviously rivalries are always there – Dodgers-Giants, Yankees-Red Sox, Cardinals-Cubs. But then it goes to another level at times, where both teams are good, and the fan bases are so strong on each side.
“I think for the first time this has finally become a real rivalry.”
At least for the first time since perhaps the 1930s.
For a 14-year stretch from 1926 through 1939, the Cubs and Gashouse Gang Cardinals were the most consistent, top-flight pair of rivals in the game (the Yankees dominating the American League at the time).
The Cubs had winning records all 14 of those years; the Cardinals for 12. The Cardinals beat out the Cubs to reach the World Series five times in that stretch; the Cubs beat the Cards to reach the Series four times in that span.
“It’d be great for baseball,” said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer, who lived the Boston side of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry for much of the 2000s.
“Certainly, they’ve made us better,” Hoyer said of the Cards. “When you know you have to achieve such a high level to win your division, I think they kind of push us. I think that’s good for both sides. If we’re doing that for them right now, that’s great.”