No matter what Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon says, not even an episode of “The Sopranos” can match the drama that is preparing to unfold in the upcoming National League Division Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and his Cubs.
After the last time these two teams met in September, Maddon made reference to the popular former HBO show, wandering aloud if Cardinals manager Mike Matheny “put a hit out” on Cubs’ All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo after a series of bean balls and hard slides caused tempers to flare.
The difference in philosophy between these two franchises was evident during that series, and is an obvious and a fascinating storyline that will be harped upon for the next week or so. But the bottom line is this: this series between the Cardinals and Cubs is the series that baseball deserves and needs.
The Cardinals are National League royalty, appearing in 12 of the last 16 postseasons and searching for their 12th World Series title in franchise history, second to only the New York Yankees. The Cards are a model franchise, a blend of homegrown youngsters and tough veterans that refuse to make excuses, and strive to “play the game the right way.”
The Cubs' sorrows have been well documented for the last 107 years. But these young Cubs are rolling into the postseason on fire, winners of nine straight, including the 4-0 dismantling of the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card game. The Cardinals have beaten the Cubs 11 of 19 times this season, but the Cubs have taken three of the last four.
The rivalry between the Cubs and Cards has been played out 2,363 times over the course of a century, but for the first time ever, the two teams face one another in the postseason.
Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Friday, Oct. 9
Jon Lester vs. John Lackey
Saturday, Oct. 10
Kyle Hendricks vs. Jaime Garcia
Monday, Oct. 12
Michael Wacha vs. Jake Arrieta
Tuesday, Oct. 13
Lance Lynn vs. Jason Hammel
Thursday, Oct. 15
Undecided vs. Undecided
Three Things to Watch
1. Banged-Up Redbirds
The Cardinals go as their leader and catcher Yadier Molina goes. Molina hasn’t played in the last 13 games because of a partially torn left thumb ligament suffered during the last time the Cards and Cubs met on Sept. 20. Molina is expected to play and start behind the plate while wearing a special brace to protect the damaged thumb. The big question is, how reliable will he be offensively, and for a Cardinals pitching staff that has fallen off since their amazing 2015 start?
Speaking of pitchers, the Cardinals will be without their most reliable arm from the season in Carlos Martinez. Martinez was shut down for the remainder of the year after it was discovered nearly two weeks ago that he had a strain in his throwing shoulder.
No doubt that the Redbirds' rotation is taking a hit losing Martinez, but the bullpen receives a boost with the return of ace Adam Wainwright. Wainwright, who suffered a torn Achilles in April, did not pitch until the last week of the season when he made three, one-inning relief appearances. Although he will not start any games in the NLDS, Matheny will attempt to use Wainwright to bridge the gap between his starters and closer Trevor Rosenthal. Like that of Molina, a question must be asked: Does Wainwright still have “it” to keep up against a deep Cubslineup?
The pitching isn’t the only part of the Cardinals' roster that has had injury issues. Lineup staples Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Jon Jay have all seen plenty of time on the disabled list. Adams didn’t even make the NLDS roster, and neither did reserve center fielder Peter Bourjos, who had been struggling of late. Both Jay and Holliday have missed almost half the 2015 season and have been limited in the past month due to various bumps and bruises. Also, reserve outfielder Stephen Piscotty has been cleared after a violent outfield collision left him with a concussion and resulted in him being carted off the field on a stretcher less than two weeks ago.
One has to wonder if the lack of regular playing time for the majority of the Cardinal outfield will have any affect against the Cubs. The revolving outfield door certainly didn't hurt the team on its way to a 100-win season.
2. Starting Rotation Questions
The Cubs and Cardinals find their pitching rotations heading in different directions. The Cards' pitching staff started the season at a fantastic pace, even without Wainwright. Martinez, John Lackey, Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn were firing on all cylinders for months, while the Cubs' hurlers were good enough, but not great. Lately, it seems the roles have reversed.
Martinez is out for the postseason and Wacha and Lynn look exhausted. Wacha gave up seven home runs and posted a 7.88 ERA in five September starts. Lynn has given up 16 runs in the past few outings, and has looked especially vulnerable against the Cubs. Chicago hitters have recorded a .296/.398/.587 line good for a team OPS of .905 against Lynn in four starts (17 1/3 IP) this season.
The bright spot for the Cardinals’ rotation is staff elder Lackey. Lackey, 36, has been brilliant at Busch Stadium, with a 9-4 record and a 1.93 ERA in 17 home starts. Before his last outing, Lackey was in the zone with seven straight quality starts. Lackey also has the postseason pedigree with a 3.08 ERA in 18 playoff starts.
The Cubs’ Jake Arrieta’s exploits have been well documented as he has become a must-watch this season. His post-All-Star break 0.77 ERA is the best in major league history. His 22 wins, hits and home run rate per nine innings are the best in baseball, while his 1.77 season ERA is second only to Zack Greinke. In his four starts against St. Louis this season, Arrieta gave up just eight runs and six extra-base hits while striking out 25. His last time out, he had one of the best postseason starts ever, striking out 11, while walking none in a complete game shutout victory over the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Arrieta is scheduled to pitch Game 3 at Wrigley Field against Wacha.
Not to be outdone, teammate Jon Lester has been outstanding as of late. In his last five starts he has a 2.19 ERA, 38 strikeouts, a 0.703 WHIP, and a .169 batting average against. Lester was paid handsomely ($155 million) this offseason to be the Cubs’ go-to guy in big-game situations just like this. Lester will take the hill against his former Red Sox teammate and good friend Lackey in Game 1.
While Arrieta and Lester are earning the headlines, the Cubs' starters staff finished the season on a 51 1/3 innings scoreless streak, which was extended to 60 after Arrieta’s masterpiece against the Pirates. With Lester taking the ball in Game 1 and Arrieta in Game 3, either Kyle Hendricks (Game 2) and Jason Hammel (Game 4), and possible Dan Haren, will need to do their part to help the Cubs advance to the National League Championship Series.
3. Bitter Rivals, Philosophical Differences
St. Louis has the “Cardinal Way,” the formula of success that has worked for years. First instituted under long-time manager Tony La Russa, the “Way” is the format that has led the Cardinals to a surprising 100-win season under Matheny. Players emulate their manager, stoic and strictly business, with a “play the game the right way” mantra mixed with a “next man up” mentality.
“The Way” is often imitated, but no other franchise executes it quite like the Cardinals, as evidenced by this season when the team was without some of its best players for long stretches of time. But the injuries were never used as an excuse as the Cardinals used homegrown talent and veteran pitching to win a fourth straight NL Central title. Often times seen as smug or dated by some opposing teams and fan bases (especially the Cubs and their fans) for their “respect the game” attitude, the Cardinals are the franchise model for success.
In the opposing dugout, the Cubs also have their own way too, the Joe Maddon way. And like their archrival, the Cubs go as their manager goes — laid back, confident, fun, and good — surprisingly good. Maddon is known for his out-of-the-box managing mentality, like playing rookie catcher Kyle Schwarber in right field during the do-or-die Wild Card game after Schwarber had only played the position for 14 innings previously.
Maddon also is the master of keeping his team loose off the field by organizing costume-themed road trips, bringing in a DJ to spring training, setting up a petting zoo in left field of Wrigley Field, and welcoming himself to the Windy City with “a shot and a beer” for the Chicago media. Maddon’s players reflect his “it’s a kids’ game” psychology, complete with bat flips, helmet rubs, and a Miguel Montero-made hashtag that has taken on a life of its own (#WeAreGood).
Maddon’s style and personality has molded this mix of young prospects and veteran players into an October force that is only picking up more steam as it rolls along.
Baseball is a game dissected by numbers, stats, sabermetrics and analytics. Baseball also is a game built on the unquantifiable: toughness, longevity, tradition and grit. Both the Cardinals and the Cubs have all of those things going for them. But the Cubs... the Cubs just feel special. Traditional wisdom says, the Cardinals beat the Cubs — they’ve been here too many times before, they know how to win, they won 100 games. But these Cubs are anything but traditional — and that is why I like them.
Prediction: Cubs in 5 Games
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. An avid baseball fan, Rose also takes time to do some play-by-play work for the radio broadcasts of Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider baseball games. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.