When the Chicago Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs last year, it was the greatest moment in my two decades-plus of being a Cubs fan. It’s not just because they advanced to the National League Championship Series for only the second time since I became a fan, but also because they beat their dreaded rivals, the Cardinals, who have been frustrating the Cubs for so many years.
It’s already been more than six months since that glorious victory in Game 4 to clinch the Division Series, and on Monday night, in St. Louis, the two teams will play for the first time since Hector Rondon struck out Stephen Piscotty to set off that memorable celebration at Wrigley Field.
Though the two teams haven’t played since last October, plenty has happened to fuel the rivalry. Both teams are expected to be contenders again this year, and rivalries always build when two really good teams are in the same division. But in addition, the Cubs poached two of the Cardinals’ most important contributors from 2015 – Jason Heyward and John Lackey – through free agency over the winter.
As if that wasn’t enough, Heyward rattled the cage of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny when he said that the Cubs’ promising group of young players – as opposed to the Cardinals’ aging core of key players – was a big factor in his decision to leave St. Louis for the North Side of Chicago. It wouldn’t be surprising if those comments were still not sitting well with Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and the rest of the Cardinals’ clubhouse. It will be interesting to see the crowd reaction that Heyward gets in his first at-bat at Busch Stadium.
Last year, the Cubs’ rivalry with the Cardinals was a microcosm of their season. Opening Night at Wrigley Field didn’t go well for the Cubs, as they lost to St. Louis while fans reportedly had to wait for two innings to use restrooms due to construction. The Cubs also lost six of their first seven games in St. Louis last year, including the first two games, when they blew big leads. The Cardinals looked like they had the Cubs outclassed.
But the Cubs matured a lot over the 2015 season. They won the final two regular season series against their rivals before beating them three games to one in the postseason. After years of looking up at St. Louis in the NL Central standings, the Cubs have proved that they belong. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, while still expected to be a contender, have some pundits wondering whether their window to win is closing. It will be interesting to see how these two teams respond to the changing expectations.
In the early and mid 2000s, the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry was so intense that it transcended sports, especially after the Red Sox erased a three-game deficit in the 2004 American League Championship Series on their way to their first title in 86 years. The current Cubs-Cardinals rivalry might not quite be on this level yet, but it has that potential, especially if the Cubs can soon win their elusive World Series championship. I can’t wait to see what happens in this rivalry next.