With Opening Day lineup, Joe Maddon delays turning the page

ST. LOUIS – Now, where were we?

Oh, right. The whole winning the World Series thing. The afterglow of a momentous accomplishment for the Cubs as a new season begins. A few more bows for the champions. At least that was my understanding of where we were, what with the historic title still feeling so fresh and, if Chicago is being honest with itself, a tad strange.

But then I was told Sunday that we’re not talking about last season anymore. The team says it’s yesterday’s news.

And I was all prepared to go along with that until Joe Maddon explained why Jason Heyward would start in centerfield that night in the season opener against the Cardinals, why Ben Zobrist would start in right field, which is normally Heyward’s position, and why Javy Baez would start at second base, where he should start all the time but doesn’t.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon gestures to members of the Cardinals after shaking hands with St. Louis manager Mike Matheny before Sunday's season opener. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

“Those are the guys who were on the field during the seventh game of the World Series, so I wanted to, as a tribute to them and what they had done for us, put them on the field for that,’’ Maddon said.

Letting go of last year might be a bit more difficult than the Cubs think, especially if their manager keeps playing guitar solos on heartstrings. And considering that there’s still the ring ceremony and the banner-raising to come for the Cubs, good luck with their self-induced amnesia.

You’ve got to love Maddon. I think that’s actually a state law now. At a minimum, you can’t help but smile at the fact that he sits backs and thinks up things like the tribute lineup he came up with Sunday. Who else does that? No baseball guy I know of.

Most of the time Maddon is lauded as an analytical genius, which is why I spent Sunday afternoon trying to figure out the reasoning behind that day’s lineup before he later explained it. Something to do with needing to have Zobrist and Baez in the game to hit against the Cards’ Carlos Martinez? Nope. It was all about sentimentality.

Maddon might get put in sabermetrics timeout for a stunt like Sunday’s. If Heyward had been in right field, he might have thrown out Dexter Fowler tagging up from third in the third inning. Instead, Zobrist’s throw was about 10 minutes late in getting to home plate, and the Cardinals led 1-0.

Before you castigate Maddon, he was the guy who announced at the beginning of spring training that one of the slogans for the season would be “Don’t Forget the Heartbeat.’’ The idea behind it was that baseball is not just about statistics. It’s about people and emotion and, yes, heart. Reminiscing is human, too, by the way.

How do you “Turn the Page,’’ the slogan Cubs players seemed to be pushing Sunday, when your manager seems to be re-reading last year’s commemorative World Series book? I’m starting to think the Cubs have too many slogans.

They could have used the memories of last season’s World Series title to fight off the onslaught of Cardinals nostalgia Sunday. The Cards trotted out some of their World Series trophies and Hall of Famers for Opening Day. There were 11 World Series flags flying in right field. What are we, the Cubs might have thought, chopped liver?

But maybe this was for the best. Better to know right away what you’re up against The Season After than to open against, say, the Braves. A sea of red at Busch Stadium let the Cubs know that they were in enemy territory and that the enemy would like to write its own history. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before the game that his team has “a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.’’

The Cubs had surgery to remove their chip. The procedure is called the World Series.

“We don’t need the us-against-them thing,’’ Cubs president Theo Epstein said before the game. “We don’t need to feel slighted. [Cubs players] love to compete. So I look forward to doing that 162 times, hopefully more.’’

Compete, they do. Catcher Willson Contreras blasted a three-run homer in the ninth inning to tie the game 3-3. It felt a little like the Cubs’ Game 7 heroics. That is, until Randal Grichuk knocked in the winning run off Mike Montgomery in the bottom of the ninth to give the Cardinals a 4-3 victory. Maybe that’s how we know it’s not 2016 anymore.

The Cubs aren’t shy about talking about their quest to win back-to-back World Series. But in order to win two in a row, don’t they have to acknowledge the existence of last season? Just asking.

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