ST. LOUIS — If you weren’t sure the next great rivalry in baseball was playing 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,” third baseman Kris Bryant said.
A powerful pitching performance by young Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez on Sunday was followed by 25-year-old Randal Grichuk’s walk-off hit in the ninth. An equally powerful pitching performance by Jake Arrieta on Tuesday turned into a 2-1 victory for the Cubs. Arrieta also got some help from 22-year-old center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who robbed Matt Adams of a home run in the seventh.
“I feel like we’re going to have a lot of these this year against those guys,” Arrieta said.
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 seven more years.
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. “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 has been a rivalry largely in name and geography only for much of that time.
If the Cubs and Cardinals finish with winning records it will mark the first time since 1967-69 they’ve done that for three consecutive years.
“With all the young guys, especially with some of the contracts they’ve signed, they’re going to be there for a while,” Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks said. “You’re going to be seeing guys year in and year out. It’ll make it fun, for sure.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny acknowledges the rivalry could overtake the Red Sox and 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 and 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. 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 to ’39, the Cubs and Cardinals were the most consistent, top-flight pair of rivals in the game.
The Cubs had a winning record in all 14 of those years, and the Cardinals 12. The Cardinals beat out the Cubs to reach the World Series five times in that stretch, with the Cubs overcoming 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, [the Cardinals have] made us better. 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.”
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