ST. LOUIS — Ben Zobrist stood at his locker inside Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse, holding his new World Series ring in his right hand.
Zobrist had already posted a video showing off his bling on Instagram and joked about using it for fist bumps before batting practice to keep the Cubs hungry.
Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore had personally delivered the ring to Zobrist, recognizing the way he helped glue the team together after a midseason trade from the Oakland A’s and performed in the clutch throughout last year’s playoff run.
It became another reminder that the Cubs now have championship-or-bust expectations. This group shows no fear of The Cardinal Way, shrugs off how St. Louis fans treat Jason Heyward and plans to be a force in October for years to come.
The Cubs won’t say they now have a psychological edge over the Cardinals, because they can let their play on the field speak for itself and then blast the music again after Tuesday’s 2-1 victory.
The Cubs have won 11 of their last 15 games against the Cardinals, including last year’s first-ever playoff matchup in a rivalry that stretches all the way back to 1892 and might never be the same again.
“Now we know we can compete with these guys,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Listen, they’ve been a great team for a long time. That’s a testament to them. The steadiness of this organization is really remarkable. We’re obviously trying to get to that point.
“But at least now when we come in here, we feel like these are two really good teams. We have to execute our pitches and make plays and get hits. But it’s not a sense that we don’t have that ability anymore. We certainly have that ability.”
The Plan bet on hitters, with most of the early buzz about an American League-style lineup, but this Cubs rotation has been quietly effective, the starting pitchers going at least six innings in each of the team’s first 14 games this season.
Jason Hammel (2-0, 1.00 ERA) put up the 13th quality start and came through with the key hit in the fourth inning, knocking a two-out, two-run single into left field off Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia.
“This is (April), and it’s already heated,” Hammel said. “It’s the best rivalry in baseball."
Hammel also benefitted from Heyward’s Gold Glove defense and sense of the moment in the fourth inning. Heyward understood where Yadier Molina often hits the ball (right field) and accounted for the runner at third base (Matt Holliday) and wouldn’t be caught by surprise.
Heyward positioned himself underneath Molina’s flyball, caught it in rhythm and made an accurate one-hop throw to catcher Miguel Montero at home plate for the inning-ending double play.
“It’s just a huge momentum swing,” Heyward said. “Games like that are the ones you’re going to have to win against great teams (in) a playoff series.”
That’s why the Cubs saw Heyward as a game-changing talent — even when he goes 0-for-5 and gets booed before every at-bat and sees his batting average drop to .170 — and wanted to steal him away from the Cardinals.
“That’s the unheralded part of his game,” Hammel said. “He’s hitting laser beams right now right at people, so you feel for him, but they’ll start falling for him. He brings it every day, on both sides of the ball.”
With professionals like Heyward and Zobrist, the Cubs are developing a serious side to balance out manager Joe Maddon’s circus, which seems to bother the sensibilities of The Best Fans in Baseball.
Hoyer worked in Theo Epstein’s front office when the Boston Red Sox finally toppled the Evil Empire. Hoyer sees the parallels with the New York Yankees and understands what Cubs-Cardinals could become, two teams fighting over big-name free agents, playing in front of raucous crowds and trying to ruin each other’s seasons.
“Yankee fans would probably say this has been the best 10 or 15 years of the rivalry,” Hoyer said. “They got the Red Sox in ’03. We got them in ’04. The Red Sox won a World Series in ’07. They win one in ’09. That’s a great thing for a rivalry. And hopefully we can get to that point here.
“It’s the best (when) it’s a real rivalry with two really good teams going at it. This has been a rivalry sort of in name only.”
Not anymore, not when the Cubs (11-3) have the best record in baseball, the Cardinals are a 7-7 team and there are still 17 more rivalry games left this season.