The Cubs won their first two games of the season against the Cardinals, but St. Louis battled back to avoid being swept and win a rain-soaked finale Wednesday afternoon. What does the first chapter between the NL Central foes say about the state of the rivalry, and what we can expect as the season continues?
ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers and Mark Saxon weigh in with their initial impressions.
Jesse Rogers: Well, Mark, it took about six hours for the Cardinals to avoid the sweep Wednesday, but I'm not sure they can avoid the inevitable: The Cubs are taking over the division. Or am I being way too optimistic? Usually it's not easy in baseball to see the big picture, but clearly, the tide has turned in this series since about the middle to end of last year. Until that point, the Cardinals were dominating and were never out of a game against the Cubs. Joe Maddon said as much. But now it's the Cubs who can add runs late and/or come from behind, as they did a bit in Games 1, 2 and even 3, in which they almost came back after that torturous rain delay. We know the Cardinals aren't going anywhere, but the Cubs' 11-4 start isn't a shock to baseball observers. Is it to you?
Mark Saxon: No, not at all. I don't think it's a shock to any baseball media member, considering the Cubs were guaranteed to win the World Series the minute all these experts decided to pick them. We've seen how well-rounded the Cubs are in this series, for sure. They certainly look more athletic and sound in the field than the Cardinals. They brought the back end of their rotation and still generally out-pitched St. Louis. Here's the thing, though: They might have woken a sleeping giant by letting Matt Holliday and some of the other key Cardinals hitters get going in the third game. The Cardinals have managed to keep their heads above water because of weird contributions from guys no one has ever heard of. They need the big names to get going, but their track records suggest they will. What have the Cubs said about the Cardinals and how important it is to grab a big early lead?
JR: Oh, there's plenty of respect for the Cardinals coming from the Cubs' clubhouse. I can't speak for the fans, of course. Between the classical music played during batting practice and the ushers' giving a hard time to some Cubs fans wearing Joe Maddon's 'Try not to suck' T-shirts, there's no love lost between the fan bases. But that's how it should be. On the field, it feels like last year in reverse. The Cardinals were the class, and the Cubs were chasing from right about now on. I think a nice lead heading into the second month will do wonders in the game of confidence, but this is a long season, and it's still way too early to know what we need to know about both teams. We can say we think we know, but give it six or eight weeks. Having said that, it's clear the Cubs aren't getting complete contributions from their star players right now, and I'm sure that will change.
MS: The best way to interpret April baseball is to ignore April baseball. One reason it was so important for the Cardinals to avoid this sweep was so the Cubs didn't leave here with a 12-3 record, a five-game lead and all the confidence that would give a young team. Yadier Molina said it best last night in a conversation with our colleague, Marly Rivera: A lot of the key Cardinals hitters are still searching for their timing. Once they find it, this team has a chance to have more hitting than it did a year ago, but it still comes down to pitching. The Cardinals need Adam Wainwright to get things figured out because their only tangible edge over the Cubs, potentially, is their deep starting rotation. I think most people would take Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez over Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, don't you?
JR: Maybe. Hammel is off to a great start, but Hendricks certainly didn't look great today. Depth will play a part, of course, and the Cubs have it in their lineup. It remains to be seen if they do in their pitching staff. I'm also curious to see what happens when these teams meet later in the year. It's too early to feel the intensity of a playoff race. I know the Cubs are much better equipped to handle it this time around. The experience of last season was huge for them, especially postseason victories over the Pirates and Cardinals. You have to go through it to really understand it. St. Louis gets that, and the Cubs are starting to as well.
MS: Well, this back-and-forth was a little short on animosity, but then again, it's early in the season. The clubs meet again here in late May and then June 20-22 at Wrigley. I have a feeling each series will get more intense as the season moves along. Neither team expects the other to disappear, and both fan bases have reason to fear the other team -- the Cubs' for historical reasons, the Cards' for present-day reasons. We will renew animosities then, my friend.