ST. LOUIS — You don’t think maestro pitcher Corey Kluber and the Cleveland Indians would gnaw off their own kneecaps for another shot at the Cubs in October?
“It would be great, of course,” Kluber told me this spring. “We’d love to get back there and play them again.”
Only one run separated the Indians and Cubs in Game 7 of last year’s World Series, though the divide between first and second place probably felt more like a million miles. Or an ocean of tears.
But enough about the Tribe. What about those Boston Red Sox? Chris Sale’s new team is my pick, anyway, to win the American League. Yep, the Red Sox would be happy to try to knock the Cubs off their perch.
“It would be pretty exciting, wouldn’t it?” star second baseman Dustin Pedroia said, arching his eyebrows as if in answer to his own question.
The Cubs are, of course, more than merely the defending champs. They’re a team of celebrities, a runaway hype train, a pop-culture phenomenon. Taking them down would be the honor of any fine squad of run-of-the-mill All-Stars and millionaires.
“I think they’re every team’s quote-unquote ‘rival,’ ” Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg said. “They’re expected to be a contender again, or the contender. They won it last year and they’re trying to defend their title. Everyone wants to kick them off the top of the mountain.”
Yet no team would, one must assume, want that more than the St. Louis Cardinals. Remember them? They used to be pretty darn good before the bottom dropped out in 2016.
GalleryThe Cubs’ old friends finished 17 games back in the N.L. Central and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. A club known for playing the game with pristine fundamentals bumbled out of the gate and did one wrong thing after another from there.
As for the so-called “Cardinal Way” culture of team-first players fitting together seamlessly?
“Our chemistry last year got beaten up pretty good,” manager Mike Matheny acknowledged.
So the Cardinals did some work in the lab during the offseason. They brought in Cubs darling Dexter Fowler to play center field, bat leadoff and up the fun factor. A coincidence that Fowler’s locker during the spring was next to team leader Yadier Molina’s? Certainly not.
The Cards now have Matt Carpenter locked in at first base, moving newly fit-and-trim slugger Matt Adams into a leading role on what should be an improved bench. Seung Hwan Ho is the closer, with Trevor Rosenthal, who pitched many fine seasons in that capacity, now available to be used more strategically.
Look across the infields and it’s difficult to see where Johnny Peralta, Aledmys Diaz, Kolten Wong/Jed Gyorko and Carpenter even begin to compete with Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist/Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo.
Look at the starting rotations, and the gap separating the Cardinals from the champs only seems to widen.
And yet …
“We think we’ve got a chance to be very good this year,” chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said.
As good as the Cubs? Seriously?
“That’s the plan,” left fielder Randal Grichuk said. “I mean, why not think that way?”
How long is the list of teams that seem to have a better chance than St. Louis of claiming the Cubs’ throne? The Red Sox, Indians and Nationals all are on it. Many would say the Mets and Giants are, too, from the National League alone.
But the Cardinals are taking dead aim at the “C” worn over the Cubs’ hearts anyway. Early in spring training, Fowler and his new teammates strode about the clubhouse in matching T-shirts. “The more you sweat in training,” they read, “the less you bleed in battle.”
Shirts with slogans? That could be just crazy enough to work. (Note to self: Introduce the concept to Joe Maddon.)
Hey, chemistry matters. Strike up those matches and fire up this rivalry right away. What better time than Opening Night?
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.