As Cardinals raise the banner, Cubs crash the party


As Cardinals raise the banner, Cubs crash the party

ST. LOUIS The last time the Cubs were at Busch Stadium, they dressed up the young players in ridiculous short skirts for the long flight to San Diego.

Laughter filled the clubhouse for last years rookie hazing. It didnt seem to matter that they had just lost two brutal one-run games, in a span of less than 28 hours, giving oxygen to their biggest rival.

It was almost hard to tell who was in charge. General manager Jim Hendry had been fired weeks before in a secret meeting with chairman Tom Ricketts. It was only a matter of time before manager Mike Quade would lose his job.

On Sept. 25, 2011, you should have checked the odds in Las Vegas on the Cardinals winning the World Series and bet everything.

Would you have predicted this? Theo Epstein running baseball operations for the Cubs, Albert Pujols playing for the Angels and Tony La Russa working for the commissioners office.

Almost seven months later, in front of a sellout crowd, the Cardinals raised their championship flag out in left field. Its not quite payback, but the Cubs killed the buzz around St. Louis with Fridays 9-5 win.

Motivated to ruin the celebration?

It should be more pissed off, pitcher Matt Garza said the day before, because we could have knocked them out of the playoffs last year in the second-to-last series and we kind of handed it over. It should be more motivation than anything, saying this could have been somebody elses (title) if we played better.

The 46,882 fans wore hooded jackets and held umbrellas, sitting through a rain delay that lasted an hour and 44 minutes. Cubs players watched parts of the ceremony while stretching and playing catch.

The Cardinals put on a production, and they were playing with house money. They trailed the Braves by 10.5 games on Aug. 24 last year before winning the wild card on the final day of the regular season.

The Hall of Famers wore bright red blazers: Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Bruce Sutter, Whitey Herzog and Red Schoendienst. The uniforms had special gold lettering. The F-16s buzzed across the sky.

Were here to win, first baseman Bryan LaHair said. They had a good celebration before the game. Its deserved. (But) we came out and we played well and got a victory.

The Cubs (3-5) hammered Adam Wainwright early, with Ian Stewart hitting his first home run in the big leagues since Aug. 23, 2010, when he was with Colorado. The three-run shot into the right-field seats set the tone in the first inning. LaHair topped that in the third inning by lifting a fastball over the fence in left and into the Cubs bullpen for a grand slam.

Jeff Samardzija (2-0) had a nine-run lead to work with, and coasted through four innings before laboring to qualify for the win. The Cardinals (5-3) scored their five runs in the fifth, but you didnt see the crazy stuff that almost always seemed to happen here last year.

Carlos Zambrano went off with his We stinks! rant. Quade called pitching to Pujols (or not) a second-guessers delight and admitted he was managing for his job. Aramis Ramirez gave a State of Ramirez address near the trade deadline (which yielded no moves). Matt Holliday took out Starlin Castro with that hard slide.

This is where the Cardinals found some walk-off magic.

You come here and they make you make plays, Samardzija said. They rarely make mistakes as a team and they kind of put it on you to play solid baseball. We definitely did that today. We made the plays on defense (and) you got to do that to beat these guys.

You give them any chance to get back in the game and they will for sure. (But) what a great job our bullpen did (Rafael Dolis, James Russell, Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol).

I remember a few days ago everybody was talking about the bullpen and whats going to happen and now you look at them and they throw four scoreless (innings). Thats what we all expect out of them.

There wasnt anything to second-guess. When you walk into the managers office, its hard to tell whether the Cubs won or lost, which is exactly the point. Dale Sveum told his players where to be on Saturday.

Ive already asked them to be out there for the ring ceremony, Sveum said. I think its a special day. You show your respect for the world champions.

Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Braves are coming (but not yet)


Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Braves are coming (but not yet)

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Atlanta Braves

2017 record: 72-90, 3rd place in NL East

Offseason additions: Preston Tucker, Charlie Culberson, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Peter Moylan, Chase Whitley, Grant Dayton, Chris Stewart, Anibal Sanchez

Offseason departures: Matt Kemp, R.A. Dickey, Jason Motte, Matt Adams

X-factor: Ozzie Albies

One of the youngest players in the league, Albies just turned 21 in January. He carries with him the pedigree of the game's No. 11 overall prospect entering last season and got his first taste of big-league life toward the end of 2017.

He hit well, posting a .286 average and .810 OPS while showing an advanced knowledge of the strike zone and providing some pop and speed.

Assuming he can avoid any sophomore slump and take another step forward, the Braves could actually surprise some people this year. But without Albies providing Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman some lineup support until a certain phenom gets to town, it's hard to see Atlanta contending.

Projected lineup

1. Ender Inciarte - CF
2. Ozzie Albies - 2B
3. Freddie Freeman - 1B
4. Tyler Flowers - C
5. Nick Markakis - RF
6. Preston Tucker - LF
7. Dansby Swanson - SS
8. Rio Ruiz - 3B

Projected rotation

1. Julio Teheran
2. Mike Foltynewicz
3. Brandon McCarthy
4. Sean Newcomb
5. Scott Kazmir


The Braves are coming, you guys. 

Maybe not now, but they'll be here soon enough.

2018 will feature growing pains for a young group of up-and-comers including the aforementioned Albies, plus Tucker (a powerful outfielder acquired from the Astros), Swanson (the 2015 No. 1 overall pick who's since fallen on tough times) and Newcomb.

Oh and there's some guy named Ronald Acuna coming up next. You may have heard of him.

The 20-year-old phenom has absolutely torn the cover off the ball everywhere he's gone the last 14 or so months and we'll see the game's No. 1 overall prospect in the big leagues in mid-April, God willing.

Once Acuna does come, it adds another level to a lineup that frankly comes up a bit short right now, even with Freeman (one of the best hitters in baseball) and Inciarte (one of the game's most underrated players). 

The Braves have a solid bullpen, plenty of rotation depth and a decent bench. It wouldn't be shocking to see them challenge for the second wild card spot, but true contention will probably come in 2019 for this bunch.

Prediction: 3rd in NL West, no playoffs

Complete opposition research

Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres
Miami Marlins
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves

Podcast: Eddie O discusses what went wrong for Blackhawks this season


Podcast: Eddie O discusses what went wrong for Blackhawks this season

Eddie Olczyk joins Pat Boyle, Steve Konroyd and Jamal Mayers to discuss what went wrong for the Blackhawks this season, and what changes could happen this summer to get the team back into the postseason.

Listen to the entire HawksTalk Podcast here: