Cubs

Heated Cubs-Cardinals rivalry finally gets playoff spotlight

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Heated Cubs-Cardinals rivalry finally gets playoff spotlight

ST. LOUIS – The Cubs had popped all those champagne bottles, smoked their victory cigars, broken out the dance moves and toasted this unbelievable year inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse.

The Cubs then went through the motions for Thursday’s workout at Busch Stadium and completed Major League Baseball’s media obligations. A broadcaster asked manager Joe Maddon about the wild-card hangover, “real or imagined.”

“It wasn’t imagined, man,” Maddon said with a laugh during his news conference.

But the Cubs won’t have any problems getting up for this, their first-ever playoff matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals in a rivalry that began in 1892. If anything, it’s whether or not all the emotions will boil over on Friday in Game 1 of this best-of-five National League division series.

[MORE: Showdown with Cardinals: This is why Cubs signed Jon Lester]

“Of course, we’re ready for some kind of a changing of the guard,” Maddon said. “But I don’t expect the Cardinals to go away.”

For a front office that grew up on the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, this is the Midwest version. In Year 4 of this rebuilding project, the Theo Epstein administration produced a team that has won 98 games including Wednesday night’s 4-0 wild-card victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“It’s inevitable,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “They’re a perennial power. They’ve shown it every year. I think we always felt that way in Boston – we had to go through New York to win. And I think given that these guys are always in the playoffs, you know you have to go through (St. Louis).

“We play 19 times. With that many games, there’s bound to be subplots when you have two good teams that are battling all the time.”

[RELATED: Bring it on: Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will escalate to another level]

Back in spring training, Maddon said he doesn’t like his hair to get too bushy on the sides or else he starts to look too much like HBO gangster “Paulie Walnuts.” This is a manager who clearly loves being in the spotlight and stirring up the rivalry.

Maddon made another mafia reference when he wondered if Tony Soprano ordered the hit on Anthony Rizzo from the St. Louis dugout. That was three weeks ago at Wrigley Field, Maddon fuming about the pitch that hit his All-Star first baseman and openly mocking “The Cardinal Way.”

Fast forward to Thursday afternoon, Rizzo standing in Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse and listening to a St. Louis reporter suggest this could be an “an all-out war.”

“An all-out war?” Rizzo said. “No, I look for us to play baseball for up to five games. I wouldn’t include ‘war’ in there. It’s going to be a good test. They’re proven. We aren’t. They have a lot of guys with a lot of experience. We don’t.

“We’re ready for it. We know we can play with them.”

The Cubs showed they won’t back down, pouring out of the dugout and the bullpen after Pirates reliever Tony Watson drilled Jake Arrieta with a pitch as payback in the seventh inning, the wild-card game almost escalating into an all-out brawl.

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“You gotta be real careful trying to wish for a certain team, because one day you just might wish that you didn’t,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “So we just watched (the game) as unbiased as we could and tried to look at it through the eyes of scouting out the team that we’re going to play next. Not necessarily pushing for one team or the other, regardless of all the storylines and excitement that can come from it.”

The Cardinals have 11 World Series titles, one losing season since 2000 and 20 playoff wins with Matheny across the last three years. But now with Maddon running the Cubs – and having the players to back up all this talk – the rivalry may never be the same again.

“There’s an inherent leadership need in this position,” Matheny said. “And without question, he’s been able to provide that. You see a group of guys that truly believe in what they’re doing. They have had a very consistent battle cry that, you know, things are going to change.

“And this is living proof right now that things have changed.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

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USA TODAY

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: