PITTSBURGH -- Two National League powerhouse teams meet this week for the first time since last year's NL wild-card game, and though the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals have a long history to their rivalry, the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates have some budding nastiness to theirs.
It was October when the teams met in the most intense game of the year, with the Cubs coming out on top 4-0 behind Jake Arrieta's complete game -- but not before tempers flared when Pirates pitcher Tony Watson plunked Arrieta in the seventh inning, not long after the Cubs star got out of the biggest jam of the night with an inning-ending double play.
Watson's first pitch to Arrieta seemed intentional. There were two outs and no one on base, and Arrieta had just hit his second Pirate of the night. The benches cleared, David Ross and Sean Rodriguez made contact, and the Rodriguez took his frustrations out on a water cooler back in the dugout.
Rodriguez's anger mimicked that of the hitters in the lineup that night against Arrieta. Arrieta couldn't be solved in the second half of last year, and that game was no different, though his postgame comments might have foreshadowed what was to come for the eventual Cy Young winner.
“I'm exhausted,” Arrieta said. “I haven't felt this way all year. This atmosphere, the energy, it was unbelievable.”
Arrieta did not pitch another game of that caliber in the playoffs, nor did the Cubs feel that kind of intensity again.
The rivalry turned up a notch only weeks earlier, when former Cub Chris Coghlan took Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang out with a controversial slide. Kang was lost for the season with a knee injury, while Coghlan was traded the day the Cubs re-signed Dexter Fowler in the offseason. Kang still isn't back with the Pirates, who never did take or get any revenge.
It's with this backdrop the clubs meet Monday for the first of 19 games between them this season. With all due respect to the Cardinals, the Cubs and Pirates are the only two teams above .500 in the NL Central, and all signs point to an epic race for the division title. Despite the Cubs' getting off to their best start since 1907, the Pirates are just three games behind.
Both teams want to avoid the fate they endured last season: playing in the wild-card game. The Pirates learned that the hard way, having lost the do-or-die game at home in back-to-back years. Arrieta had to use every bullet he had left in his right arm for the Cubs to advance. As a result, both teams have their sights set on the division title.
The Pirates will see Jason Hammel on Monday before Arrieta returns to the mound at PNC Park the next night. In talking with scouts during spring training, there wasn't much consensus on how to beat Arrieta if his 2015 form returned for 2016. One suggestion was to rattle him, which is what the Pirates might have been trying to do in that seventh inning hit-by-pitch. But Arrieta shook it off and subsequently stole second base after the bench-clearing incident.
The Cubs have picked up where they left off last season, and so, seemingly, have the Pirates. Pittsburgh has reinforcements to call up later in the year -- their top pitching prospects are nearly ready -- but they're dangerous right now. After a slow start, they're right on the Cubs' heels, as many expect them to be the entire season.
This week is just Round 1. Will the season series receive immediate intensity, or will it build to a late September 4-gamer at PNC Park to determine the division winner? What about any leftover nastiness? Coghlan's gone, but Ross, Rodriguez and Arrieta remain.
Over the next half-decade, this might be the rivalry of the Central division. If last year is any indication, it's off to a good start.