PITTSBURGH – The National League’s marquee Midwest franchises have been playing each other since 1892 — with more than 2,300 games between Chicago and St. Louis — but the rivalry has never seen anything like this before.
The PNC Park fireworks during Wednesday night’s 4-0 wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates will be nothing compared to the Cubs facing the Cardinals in their first playoff matchup ever.
“We’ll deal with the Cardinals tomorrow,” Theo Epstein said, completely soaked inside a raucous visiting clubhouse where cigar smoke hung in the air, champagne sprayed from all directions and loud rap music blasted from the sound system. “It’s going to be incredible.”
The president of baseball operations had grown up on the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees and taken down The Evil Empire before accepting the challenge in October 2011. The mandate was clear: Finally catch the Cardinals and build a World Series winner after more than a century of disappointments.
By Year 4, Epstein’s front office assembled a 97-win team that didn’t fear anyone but still finished third in the brutal Central. It’s not as glamorous or as media-centric as the old American League East, but the divisional era had never before seen baseball’s top three teams play in the same division.
“We’ve had a little magic going all year long,” Epstein said. “It just felt with all of our being like we deserved a nice little run here in October. Congratulations to the Pirates on a great regular season. They have every right to feel like they should be going on, too. But only one of us could.”
Jon Lester — the $155 million lefty the Cubs signed last winter to help them get to October and pitch in big moments — will start Game 1 of this best-of-five series on Friday at Busch Stadium.
But Lester’s No. 1 priority late Wednesday night was making sure Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder got hit with enough Korbel: “It burns, don’t it?”
Ex-Cubs Kerry Wood and Ryan Dempster and former Blackhawk Chris Chelios joined the party. Out on the service-level concourse, winning pitcher Jake Arrieta chatted with movie star John Cusack for a moment as players celebrated with their friends and families.
“We have a lot of confidence in our group,” said backup catcher David Ross, who tried to protect Arrieta and play peacemaker in the seventh inning and almost wound up in the middle of an all-out brawl. “We don’t really think about the other team that much.
“We try to take care of our stuff in-house and worry about our own guys, our own pitching, our own hitting, our own bullpen and try to go out there and put together a game plan to beat the other team.”
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Kyle Schwarber — who had once been viewed as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in last year’s draft — showed the young Cubs wouldn’t be afraid of the moment or worried about history by driving in three runs with his first two playoff at-bats.
The Cubs went 8-11 against the gold-standard franchise this season, turning up the heat on this rivalry with Joe Maddon’s calculated messages through the media, the manager comparing the Cardinals to “The Sopranos” and knowing he should have a dangerous team for years to come.
The Cardinals have those 11 World Series titles and all that playoff experience after earning their 12th postseason appearance since 2000. But at the most intense time of the year, the Cubs look like a team that’s playing with nothing to lose.
“We’ll get ready for St. Louis a little later on,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who sounded crazy back in January predicting the Cubs would win this division. “We’re going to enjoy this one.”