Cubs begin title defense with walk-off loss in St. Louis

Cubs begin title defense with walk-off loss in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS – The brave new world of Cubs baseball began at 7:38 p.m. on Sunday at Busch Stadium in front of a sellout crowd and a national TV audience. It had been 16,945 games since the Cubs opened a season as defending World Series champions, back when the 1909 team beat the St. Louis Cardinals at the West Side Grounds without "The World's Greatest Leader" or "Bryzzo Souvenir Co." or a $155 million pitcher.

How do you top last year? Well, the Cubs are off to another head-spinning, get-me-rewrite start, with the added cinematic touches of rain falling in the eighth and ninth innings. Nothing here will compare to Game 7 drama, but the Cubs and Cardinals will play 18 more times this season, and that should be very entertaining.

"We're not going to go undefeated this year," Jon Lester said after a 4-3 walk-off loss, in a visiting clubhouse where the Cubs shrugged it off and played their music.

Fireworks exploded after Randal Grichuk – a young player the Cardinals expect to take a leap forward this year – delivered in a bases-loaded situation and lined a Mike Montgomery pitch off the base of the left-center field fence. Grichuk had already slammed Pedro Strop's 96-mph fastball into the right-field bullpen for a two-run homer and a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning.

Not that St. Louis necessarily has an inferiority complex, because the Cardinals love their Opening Night pageantry and the Budweiser Clydesdales parading around the stadium. But a red mat around home plate did conspicuously salute the "11-TIME WORLD CHAMPIONS."

A celebration of the 125th season of Cardinal baseball featured actual trophies and Hall of Famers like Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith and Tony La Russa in red blazers for a pregame ceremony. The 2017 Cardinals rode in pickup trucks around the warning track. A moment of silence for St. Louis legend Chuck Berry preceded his daughter singing the national anthem.

Nine innings doesn't prove that the Cardinals have closed last year's 17.5-game gap in the National League Central or reveal something about the 2017 Cubs or say much about the state of this rivalry. But this is all we have to go on.

"The page has been turned," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "This is a new journey, a new group."

[RELATED: Cubs will pay respects to Dexter Fowler at Wrigley Field]

Playoff legend Kyle Schwarber doesn't really do regular seasons. He didn't get his first hit last year until having reconstructive knee surgery, going through a grueling rehab process and then putting up a .971 OPS in the World Series.

As the new leadoff guy, Schwarber singled, doubled and got hit by a pitch, but the Cardinals weren't intimidated. Looking like the next great St. Louis pitcher, Carlos Martinez unleashed 100-mph heat, putting together 7.1 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts against zero walks, a reminder that the Cubs will get everyone’s best shot this season.

"We were picked by everyone under the sun to win last year, too," team president Theo Epstein said. "So I know it's not good for storylines, but this group of guys needs like no motivation. They need no maintenance or management. They're such self-starters. They're totally connected, really selfless, hungry to win. We're lucky to have this group of guys. They run themselves and they want it bad.

"They put a ton of work in during the offseason. It was a great spring training. They're going to do all the little things to get the most out of their ability as a team – emphasis on team – and we're just lucky to be here while this is going on.

"We don't need an us-against-them thing. We don't need to feel slighted. They love to compete, so look forward to doing that 162 times, hopefully more."

Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and his bases-loaded flyball off Seung Swan Oh in the eighth inning didn't soar deep enough to score a run. The Cubs saw zeroes all over the scoreboard until Willson Contreras hammered Oh's slider 414 feet into the left-field seats for a game-tying, three-run homer in the ninth inning.

During last year's playoffs, the Cubs learned firsthand about the elements of chance and randomness, the value of a few inches here or there. That helped the Cardinals score their first run in the third inning, when highlight-reel second baseman Javier Baez lost a ball in a white rotating advertisement behind home plate. Instead of scooping up that Aledmys Diaz hard-hit ball and turning a double play, ex-Cub Dexter Fowler kept running to third base and would score on Matt Carpenter's sacrifice fly.

"I'm not afraid to make mistakes, and when I make them, there's no excuses," Baez said. "But I didn't see the ball at all until it passed the mound. I realized it was the sign, because he was getting out of the box and I still couldn't see the ball. And it was only for us playing defense.

"No excuses, but I just couldn't see the ball like that."

ESPN to broadcast two of Cubs first four games in 2020


ESPN to broadcast two of Cubs first four games in 2020

It won't be long before baseball fans get their first look at the Cubs under new manager David Ross.

ESPN announced Thursday they will broadcast two of the Cubs' first four games in 2020: March 29 against the Brewers in Milwaukee (Sunday Night Baseball) and March 30 against the Pirates (3 p.m. first pitch). The latter game is the Cubs' 2020 home opener.

Ross worked as a color analyst for ESPN from 2017-19 before the Cubs hired him as manager in October. So, not only will his club be in the national spotlight early in the season, but his former co-workers will be the ones analyzing him as his managerial career kicks off.

The Cubs open the season on March 26 against the Brewers.

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Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal


Willson Contreras’ trade value just spiked, thanks to White Sox signing Yasmani Grandal

This is the best thing the White Sox have done for the Cubs in years.

The White Sox made a big splash in free agency Thursday, signing catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract. Grandal joins the South Siders from the Brewers, where he played an integral role in Milwaukee making a second-straight postseason appearance in 2019.

Grandal led qualified catchers in on-base percentage (.380) last season, also posting career highs in home runs (28) and RBIs (77). He’s also an excellent pitch framer, tying for fourth in RszC (runs saved by catcher framing) among all catchers with 9.

Milwaukee’s payroll reached a franchise-high $122.5 million in 2019 and their farm system (No. 29 in MLB, per Baseball America) is lacking. How they replace Grandal’s production is a major question mark, which in turn is a win for the Cubs this offseason.

But besides plucking him from the NL Central, the White Sox signing Grandal early in the offseason helps the Cubs, who have important decisions of their own to make.

Although Cubs president Theo Epstein said to take any trade rumors with a “mouthful of salt,” multiple teams believe catcher Willson Contreras is available for trade. The Cubs need to retool their roster and replenish a farm system that has been depleted in recent seasons from numerous “win now” trades.

The Cubs and White Sox made the notorious José Quintana trade in July 2017, but it’s unlikely the two would have matched up for a Contreras trade. The Cubs need young assets; trading away young assets is the last thing the White Sox want to do as their championship window opens.

So, Grandal landed with a team that was unlikely to be involved in any potential Contreras trade talks. Grandal was the best free agent catcher; Contreras is the best catcher that can be had in a trade.

Other teams interested in Grandal — such as the Reds — can no longer turn to him in free agency. The Rays have made addressing the catcher spot this winter a priority, but they have one of MLB’s lowest payrolls each season. Signing Grandal wasn’t going to happen, but Tampa Bay has the farm system (No. 2 in baseball, per to make a big trade.

Contreras is the best catcher available — for the right price, obviously — so the ball is in the Cubs' court. They don’t get better by dealing their two-time All-Star backstop, but Contreras’ trade value is high. With Grandal off the market, it just got even higher.

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