Opening Day win fuels Cardinals' aim to close gap on Cubs

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate their impressive place in baseball history every Opening Day with Hall of Famers riding in wearing red jackets and Clydesdales stomping about and all sorts of fun stuff. But when the Chicago Cubs are in town, they seem to dwell on it longer.

So, when they mentioned their 11 World Series championships dozens of times during the pregame ceremony Sunday night, it might have been as much about who was in the visiting dugout as it was about the 125th anniversary of the day they joined the National League. It was, at the very least, convenient timing, with Chicago fans and the rest of the nation watching on ESPN.

Most prognosticators don’t seem to think the Cardinals are the team to pose the biggest threat to the Cubs’ defense of their title this season; they favor the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets or Washington Nationals. The Cardinals aren’t listening to prognosticators. That much seemed evident after their exciting 4-3 win over the Cubs.

Shortly after eviscerating the Cubs' lineup with a fastball that brushed triple digits and a changeup that bordered on sadistic, Carlos Martinez didn’t mince words. I asked him if he thought the Cardinals had closed the gap on the champs.

“I think we could be better this year,” he said in Spanish. “Last year was last year. I give them the credit they deserve. They are a good team, but I believe in my team and I think things are going to be different this year.”

All winter, the Cardinals thought about ways they could close that gap on Chicago, which won 17 games more than them during the regular season and rolled their way to their first World Series win in 108 years. For the first time since the Cardinals’ first title in 1926, they are the team with the longest championship drought in this rivalry. That is a stunning realization for their fans to live through, the wrong side of history.

Yet the Cardinals went a respectable 9-10 against the Cubs last season and, at the very least, Sunday night hinted that when these teams play, the tension could be massive again in 2017. Martinez was absolutely electric, but one Matt Carpenter misplay opened the door for Willson Contreras' three-run home run to tie it before Randal Grichuk won it with a walk-off single that reached the wall in left-center.

By now, most people know how much young talent the Cubs have stockpiled. It shows every time Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber swings or Javier Baez or Addison Russell gloves a baseball or Contreras tries to back-pick an unwary runner. Those people may not be aware of how good Martinez has become or how much bat speed Grichuk has or how savvy Aledmys Diaz and Stephen Piscotty are on a baseball field.

If the Cardinals’ young players make the strides this season that the Cubs’ young players made last season, this rivalry could tilt quite quickly. Grichuk started 2016 in a massive slump and wound up making an embarrassing return trip to Triple-A Memphis.

“It’s my first Opening Day game that I did something, really,” Grichuk said. “Last year I struggled, and I didn’t get to start the year before.”

Martinez was excited to get his first Opening Day start, which he earned by leading the Cardinals in wins, ERA, strikeouts and just plain ability in 2016. He admits he was intent on showing the rest of the world he’s better than they might think. The Cardinals are convinced he’ll be a candidate in the Cy Young discussion very soon, if not this season. He made that confidence look well-placed on Sunday, striking out 10 and walking none.

“It was not just an opportunity to show the Cardinals I’m the man for the job, but to showcase my talent for the world,” he said.

Dexter Fowler helped the Cubs break their famous drought last season, and he scored the first run in the rivalry in 2017, this time swiping his left hand across the plate to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the third inning. Before the game, he was asked whether his new team had closed the gap on his old one.

“It’s going to be a good one, but I always like to win,” Fowler said. “So, hopefully, I’ll be on top. Again. I feel like we’re pretty even over here.”

It’s in part because of Fowler’s presence, but also because of how things went in this division last year, that the Cardinals felt a different vibe all spring.

“I’d say it’s a little bit of an edge, a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. The first day we walked into spring I sensed it,” manager Mike Matheny said.

Everywhere the Cubs go this season, teams are going to give them their best efforts. They certainly should expect nothing less from the Cardinals, who are used to being the alpha males in the National League Central and to pummeling the Cubs throughout the generations. One game isn’t going to sway the course of what could be a changing of the guard. It will be about the usual things -- health, luck, the shape of players’ growth curves -- but the Cardinals are intent on showing last year wasn’t the start of things to come.

So, yeah, consider this opening night an early statement.