Opening Day Preview: Cardinals vs. Cubs


Want to know how old baseball is? The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs have played each other exactly 2,222 times in regular season play since 1901. On Sunday, they will play yet again on Opening Day, with the Cubs holding an overall record of 1,119-1,086 over the visiting Cards. Like usual, the game will be held at Wrigley Field, and like usual, it has all the implications of National League contention.

It feels fitting to open up this 2015 season – one with a precedent for a rapidly developing offseason and array of dynamic story lines — with one of baseball’s oldest traditions: Cardinals versus Cubs. In Sunday’s matchup, we’ll get the wonderful mix of traditional excitement at a familiar venue with new faces and an entirely clean slate of why to care about 2015. In other words, we get baseball back. Here’s what to look for on Sunday’s Opening Day game.

Lester vs. Wainwright

Most managers get it. The excitement of Opening Day — when it fully captures the anticipation and hope of a fresh season for every team with Game One — is too much to not give in to. Most managers know that what both the fans and their teams want to lead them into a new campaign is the ace — the guy that, many games down the road from Opening Night, is going to be the one called on again and again to keep alive the hope they themselves created on that first real game in April. Most managers give us the draw of a headline matchup, first game of the season, and go on to enjoy it as much as we do. Some managers, though, give us Bartolo Colon.

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  • Not Joe Maddon and Mike Matheny. St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright against Chicago’s Jon Lester gives us the most exciting possible duel on Sunday night, and the narratives aren’t bad, either. Wainwright is making his fourth career Opening Day start for the Cards, posting a 1-1 record with a 2.49 ERA and 10.9 K/9 in those games.

    Despite past injuries, Wainwright has been the most sure thing St. Louis has had in this past half-decade, keeping his fastball around 90 mph despite entering his mid-30s. He was cursed to enter his prime in the Clayton Kershaw era and had it not been for the reincarnation of Sandy Koufax out in Los Angeles, we’d be talking about Wainwright, the two-time Cy Young winner and could-be Hall of Famer, making his fourth Opening Day start. Still, if you want efficiency, don’t look any further than “Waino”.

    Adversely, his counterpart Lester is unpacking his bags on Sunday night for the second time in a full year. The 31-year old southpaw benefited from a successful “gun for hire” stint in Oakland at the end of last year, netting six years and $155 million from Chicago this offseason.

    This is Opening Day start No. 5 for Lester, where he’s gone 1-1 with a 3.73 ERA and 7.1 K/9. He can still reach back for mid-90s, but was suffering some arm fatigue in March and is probably not going to be at his sharpest on Sunday night. Still, who’s to say an excited Wrigley crowd and a new uniform isn’t going to get Lester revved up for a new division rival? Unlike Wainwright, he has everything to prove after Chicago’s big investment in him.

    A few fun facts: Lester has had one career start at Wrigley Field, where he struck out eight and surrendered three runs in 6.2 IP. It was a pretty decent quality start he turned in. In terms of Wainwright, he has 89 career K’s at Wrigley — more than at any other opposition’s ball park.

    The void of Kris Bryant

    You never know what’s great until it’s not around. That’s a sentiment most Chicago fans will feel on Sunday night when, with a new ace on the mound throwing to a new catcher who will be taking pitch calls from a new manager at a somewhat newly renovated stadium, they’ll miss the one new thing they really, really wanted. If Twitter could make sounds, the “pfft” of a balloon deflating would have been emitted this week when the public discovered that the sensational power-hitting prospect Bryant would be demoted to Triple-A ball to start the season.

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  • Bryant was just capping off a stupid-good spring and seemed more than ready to crack the Opening Day lineup as the Cubs’ 23-year old savior. Of course, GM Theo Epstein & Co. sent him down on the weak excuse of needing to “work on his defense,” although there are monetary motives behind it. In all likelihood, he’s in the starting lineup before May, but it was still enough of an irrational move to irk fans and teammates fully invested in Chicago’s new “win now” mentality.

    It also puts unnecessary pressure on left fielder Chris Coghlan, who, despite putting together a decent 2014 campaign, is now sitting in Bryant’s seat at lunch. Coghlan is a partially suitable option in the outfield, but Bryant has been working in that spot this spring and will probably get the innings over him the moment he’s promoted.

    Why cast that pressure on a needed role player for the first few weeks of the season? That’s not the sort of momentum a team wants to set in Game One. They’re bound to question Bryant’s absence on Sunday night’s broadcast — the problem is that there’s no real substantial answer to it. Jon Lester summed up the entire situation pretty eloquently earlier this week, though.

    The Cardinals vs. The Field

    Since 2008, St. Louis has won over 55 percent of their regular season games, have made the playoffs five times, have made the National League Championship Series four times and have won the World Series twice. During that stretch, the Cardinals managed to continuously get under the skin of the Cubs, Pirates, Brewers, Reds and Dodgers. In fact, they’ve become one of the least-liked teams in MLB.

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  • While their successful ship has sailed through any and all changes for at least the past decade, the tides around them are changing. Pittsburgh is now one of the few teams in the league projected to be both younger and better than last year, and Chicago’s addition of Maddon and a proven core of talent has them at nearly the same odds to win it all.

    It’s debatable that St. Louis has also improved since last season’s 90-72 finish — the only notable additions were Jason Heyward and Mark Reynolds — but the field is still growing around them. Under Matheny, the team has gone 43-33 in the past three April’s. The key to retaining a hold on their division may begin with a big win in the renovated Wrigley on Sunday night. After all, every win is going to count in the NL Central.

    Will the real Starlin Castro please stand up?

    Forget asking about how good Castro is — we still have to figure out what kind of good he is. The All-Star shortstop has done more than he should be asked of in his first five seasons, assuming a role of maturity and production not reserved for every 25-year old.

    After a breakout 2011 campaign in which his play promoted him being a great No. 2 hitter, he seemingly stretched himself thin. His overall value decreased because he was often trying to do everything — get on base, hit for power, create runs, drive in runs — in an ill supported lineup. His output became something like 80 percent of Andrew McCutchen‘s. From 2012 to 2014, the Cubs scored in the bottom five in runs and batting average each season. Despite his versatility, Castro posted just the 16th best total offensive WAR for shortstops during this time.

    But Castro’s surroundings have quickly changed and he finds himself going into Sunday night likely hitting second — more importantly, having just the duties of a No. 2 hitter. Anthony Rizzo grew into a full-fledged  No. 3 hitter last season, posting a .978 OPS in the second half of the season. Behind Rizzo is Jorge Soler, who somehow swings with both the grace of Ken Griffey, Jr. and the violence of Prince Fielder.

    Those two young bats are backed by veteran catcher Miguel Montero. Hitting in front of Castro will be proven leadoff man Dexter Fowler (career .366 OBP when hitting first). Each of these assets already provide an approach to the plate that Castro struggled to contribute in past years. If the never-ending equation of lineup chemistry prevails, Castro should be expected to provide 100 percent of his production into about 20 percent of the offensive needs. Castro is great at a few things, and he finally has a chance to not worry about those other things and focus on his brand of baseball.

    Welcome to 2015, Wrigley Field

    In unrelated and somewhat entertaining news, Wrigley Field will debut its new, 40-years-too-late jumbo-sized video board on Sunday night. The 42-foot-by-95-f00t screen is part of the storied stadium’s $375 million renovation project that includes new outfield bleachers, a new brick outfield wall (don’t worry, it has ivy on it) and one horrific comparison.

    While Wrigley Field remains an aesthetic marvel and monument to the history of the game, these additions are for the best. I’m sure it’ll take some getting used to for the more traditional fan, but better seating and a Jumbotron aren’t things that hinder a day at the ball park. Plus, it’s nice to have a big screen for such moments like these Opening Night.

    The Ernie Banks memorial

    Mar 5, 2015; Mesa, AZ, USA; Detailed view of the number 14 on a Chicago Cubs hat as a tribute to the memory of Ernie Banks during their game against the Oakland Athletics during a spring training baseball game at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    As if the average baseball fan with a pulse needed another reason to tune in on Sunday, “Mr. Cub” is expected to get a proper send-off since his passing in late January. Banks was a peer of Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and only a few other icons that touched their franchises as much as they impacted baseball itself. Getting to see his fans show him some love with a national television audience at least one more time will be awesome — especially if it includes using the vacant bleachers. There will definitely be more to come for the Banks tributes throughout the season, but this one will certainly mean the most.

    To wrap this up, let’s make some fun predictions:

    • First pitch: Fastball, high, ball.
    • First hit: Matt Holliday, single, first inning.
    • First home run: Rizzo, right-center, fifth inning.
    • References to Joe Maddon as a “genius”: Four.
    • References to Wrigley renovations: Eight.
    • References to Cardinals/Cubs history: Three.
    • Final score: Cardinals 5-3 in nine innings.
    • Player of the Game: Wainwright (W), 6.2 IP, 2 ER, 5 K.

    Welcome back, baseball.

    Next: The Chicago Cubs vs Kris Bryant