The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs have played one another 18,014 times, but never like this.
Never in the postseason.
The Cardinals-Cubs rivalry is one of the best in sports, but it’s mostly friendly.
Cubs fans flock to St. Louis when the Cubs are in town and vice versa. The atmosphere is civil, for the most part.
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But this rivalry is about to get more intense and it starts Friday with Game 1 of the NLDS at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
The Cubbies are hot, having finished the regular season on a high and beating Pittsburgh, 4-0, in the National League wild-card game Wednesday night in Pittsburgh behind the Robert Stack of MLB, the untouchable Jake Arrieta.
The Cardinals won 100 games, but that’s only three more than the Cubs. This is going to be a great NLDS and the best news for the Cardinals is that they’ll have to face Arrieta only once; he’s slated to pitch Game 3 on Monday at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs are obviously dangerous offensively. The Cardinals have struggled all season with Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Dexter Fowler and Chicago has other weapons, too.
But the Cardinals have won 11 of 19 meetings with the Cubs this season, although Chicago has won four of the past six.
The difference in these Cubs vs. Cubs teams of the past is their confidence. It was on full display in the wild-card game against a Pirates team that doesn’t lack in self-esteem.
The brashness no doubt comes from Joe Maddon, who was brought to Chicago to win a World Series. Nobody imagined it would happen in his first year, but anybody who knows baseball considers the Cubs as a legitimate threat to do the unthinkable and win their first World Series in 107 years.
Arrieta, though, cannot pitch every game so let’s not anoint the Cubs just yet.
Jon Lester, who will start Game 1 against the Cardinals’ John Lackey, is just 11-12, a surprisingly mundane win-loss record considering the Cubs’ success. But he’s often pitched in tough luck and has the kind of postseason experience, and success, the Cubs were willing to pay $155 million over six years to acquire.
The Lester-Lackey matchup is interesting in many ways. They were teammates in Boston when the Red Sox beat St. Louis in the 2013 World Series when Lester was 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA in 15.1 innings.
Overall, Lester is 6-4 with a 2.57 ERA in 14 postseason games, 12 of them starts.
The soon-to-be 37-year-old Lackey, meanwhile, is pitching for $500,000 this season due to a strange contract stipulation at the end of the six-year, $83 million deal he signed with Boston.
Lackey was 13-10 this season with a 2.77 ERA, the lowest of his career. The big stage won’t be daunting for him — he has pitched 117 postseason innings and is 7-5 with a 3.08 ERA.
Most of those in the baseball world are probably pulling for Chicago, which I believe is something the Cardinals will embrace. St. Louis is regularly in the postseason and has advanced to the NLCS four years in a row.
The Cubs can only dream of such success.
But with a young team and a proven manager, Chicago could be on the verge of supplanting St. Louis as the powerhouse team in the National League Central.
The NLDS could signify a changing of the guard, earlier than anyone expected.
But don’t expect the Cardinals to go quietly. This shapes up as a whale of a series. You should watch.