Heated Cubs-Cardinals rivalry finally gets playoff spotlight


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.

[NBC SHOP: Get the latest Cubs gear here]

“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.”

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

A peek behind the curtain at what makes Joe Espada such an intriguing managerial candidate for Cubs

As the Cubs managerial search continues, the Astros are vying for their second World Series championship in a three-year span.

Coincidentally, the man leading Houston once envisioned himself doing the same thing on the North Side of Chicago. It’s strange how baseball works sometimes. 

A.J. Hinch — who interviewed for the Cubs managerial job in 2013 — was disappointed when Theo Epstein and Co. chose Rick Renteria to take the reins of the club instead, especially given his managerial experience. But then again, Hinch recognizes he still could have been pushed out a year later for Joe Maddon the same way Renteria was. So, maybe things did work out best for everyone.

Between that history and Hinch's time with Jed Hoyer in San Diego, it explains why Hinch knows a thing or two about what the Cubs brass is looking for in their next manager and the process they are taking to find the right guy to steer the ship.

That guy might end up being Hinch’s current bench coach Joe Espada, who had a second interview with Epstein's front office this week.

“Joe and I were Triple-A roommates back in Oakland,” Hinch said. “I tried to hire him in Arizona as a first- or third-base coach when I became manager in Arizona and he immediately got promoted to the Marlins coaching staff. So when he was with the Yankees and we eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, Cora was just about to be named the manager of Red Sox. I immediately asked for permission to speak to Joe and he was my choice; he was my hand-picked guy [to take over as Astros bench coach] immediately.”

And it appears, Espada will soon become someone else’s “hand-picked guy” to manage.

Will that be with the Cubs?

“He’s a well-rounded baseball man,” Hinch said. “He’s been in a few places and so he’s seen and done virtually everything to prepare himself to manage. From coaching in Miami to being with the Yankees on successful teams, to being a bench coach here. He’s been around decision-making, he’s been around high end winning and he’s intellectually curious.” 

Besides his coaching resume, Espada is thought to bring other innate characteristics to the table that would appeal to any organization. The Cubs liked what they saw and heard enough to bring him in for a second interview, which was no surprise to Hinch.

“He’s organized, diligent, he’s very fair to people, he’s a good family man.” Hinch said. “All attributes that help you build something in the clubhouse that ultimately leads to winning. The only thing untested in him is managing. And any time you talk about someone without managerial experience, I think you’re just going to have to learn on the job, period. There’s been plenty of examples of guys that have done it and Joe is really good. The potential could be very quick for him. A lot of teams have asked about him.” 

Naturally, the same could be said for David Ross, a candidate Hinch also spoke highly about.

“I think he’d be really good," the Astros manager said of Ross. "If he’s all in, I’ll love it because I think he could learn quickly. He’s got immediate credibility. I think the player buy-in is there and it would be interesting to build a staff around him.”

The intrigue will continue to grow in what now seems to be a two-horse race, but with the World Series getting underway the Cubs will likely wait for an off day or the conclusion of the Fall Classic to make an announcement. And even though their team isn’t playing, Cubs fans can still keep an eye on Espada as well as former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez as the Astros and Nationals take center stage in the baseball world. 

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

As Pedro Strop enters free agency for the first time, all he wants to do is return home

The stats don't lie: Pedro Strop is one of the best relief pitchers in Cubs franchise history.

No pitcher has come close to the 120 holds Strop has notched in a Cubs uniform (Carlos Marmol is second with 83) and he also ranks sixth all time in appearances, ahead of Fergie Jenkins and Ryan Dempster.

Strop even has a better ERA (2.90) and WHIP (1.05) with the Cubs than Lee Smith (2.92, 1.25), who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. 

But at the moment, Strop won't have an opportunity to build upon those numbers as he enters free agency for the first time in his career following the final year of his $17.6 million extension he signed prior to 2017.

He hopes he'll get another chance in Chicago, repeatedly calling the Cubs clubhouse "home."

"I gotta say the Cubs are a priority [in free agency] and I'll work with them first and see if we can work something out," Strop said after the Cubs' final game of the season. "If not, then Plan B — whatever is best for the rest of my career. Right now, I just want to come back and stay home."

Anthony Rizzo is the only player who currently boasts a longer tenure with the Cubs and the team got together after the season finale in St. Louis to toast to Strop, Ben Zobrist and Joe Maddon.

Maddon's departure was already official and while it's still possible Strop and Zobrist return, the Cubs wanted to pay tribute just in case this was the end for them, too. Strop called it an emotional and "sad" moment that he may have to leave the family he built in Chicago, but maintained hope that a reunion was in the future. 

The Cubs think so highly of Strop and his impact behind the scenes (especially on younger players like Javy Baez), Theo Epstein said last fall he hopes the veteran "can be a part of this organization when he's done playing."

Don't start lining Strop up for a coaching gig or a job as a special assistant in Epstein's front office. Not yet, anyway.

Still only 34, he believes he has something left in the tank and the final month or so of 2019 backs him up. Continued issues with his hamstring dragged down his overall season numbers (4.97 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but Strop seemed to find his rhythm again in September with a 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 14 strikeouts in 9 innings (though much of that work came in low-leverage situations).

In summing up his season, he wished he had been able to contribute in that way earlier in the year, but felt like he proved a lot in the final month. That could be a nice sales pitch to teams in free agency.

"If I'm starting a negotiation with the Cubs, it doesn't have to be that difficult," Strop said. "They already know what I'm capable of doing when I'm right and they know this is my house here. But I still don't know what's gonna happen."

The Cubs are undergoing a complete renovation of their bullpen this winter, with veterans Strop, Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Brandon Morrow ticketed for free agency and Derek Holland and David Phelps likely to follow. 

Right now, it appears only Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck are locked into relief spots for 2020, opening up a plethora of options. Kimbrel is a giant question mark after his debut season on the North Side and the other three just enjoyed breakout 2019 campaigns, so there isn't much of a track record there to trust.

There's plenty of room for Strop to come back, but will the Cubs come calling? Is it prudent to chalk up his struggles to the leg injuries and not just overall wear and tear that also saw Strop's fastball velocity drop nearly 2 full mph?

If the price is right, Strop could be a good low-risk/high-reward option for the Cubs to add some veteran depth to the bullpen. Relievers don't often become huge factors in the clubhouse chemistry of a team, but the Cubs have always fed off Strop's relentlessly upbeat attitude and brutal honesty.

Plus, he feels like he has some unfinished business with the Cubs next year.

"We had a contending team [in 2019]," he said. "Teams are getting better in our division. We gotta realize that and we gotta be honest that they're getting better. We just need to come back hungry and try to win. Just go out there, not thinking about whatever happened this year and just compete. We got the guys, we got the group. It's gonna be a really good 2020 Chicago Cubs team."