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.
“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.”
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.”