CHICAGO -- Like the latest episode of HBO's "Game of Thrones," the battle to take place at Wrigley Field this weekend has been brewing for some time. In fact, the rivalry between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals goes back about as far as Westeros. And just like the rise in intensity this season -- television season, that is -- the baseball rivalry has reached another level as well.
If calling your opponent's city "boring" doesn't add to the rivalry, nothing will. Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant was kidding, of course, when he and former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster took some shots at the city of St. Louis during a comedy sketch at the Cubs' fan fest in January, when temperatures hovered around freezing. Things got decidedly hotter when Cardinals veteran Yadier Molina took exception, calling Bryant a "stupid player and loser."
"There's obviously going to be carryover, but I thought they were harmless comments at the Cubs' convention with our fans there," Bryant told ESPN. "But now that we're in the middle of the season, I don't know what to expect. I know there will be boos and stuff like that, but maybe that adds to the rivalry."
The war of words calmed down, but that doesn't mean the intensity will when the teams meet for three games this weekend, with the Cardinals in first place and the Cubs in second. It's only May, but with the teams facing off for the first of six series, fans from both sides will undoubtedly treat it like October.
"That's what makes the NL Central so special to me," Jason Heyward said. "It's a division battle every night, it's a playoff atmosphere. And I feel like fans in the NL Central have a lot to look forward to every year, but this year it'll be really fun."
Heyward knows of what he speaks. He has played for both franchises, as has Daniel Descalso, who joined the Cubs before this season.
"I think it's as good as it's ever been," Descalso said of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. "When I was a Cardinal [2010-14] it was sort of one-sided, the Cardinals sort of dominated the rivalry. I think the Cubs have kind of flipped the script the last couple of years, with winning the World Series in 2016, and knocking them out of the playoffs the year before that. So I'm sure the Cardinals are itching to get back on top, but the NL Central still goes through Chicago."
The Milwaukee Brewers might argue the point. They toppled the Cubs in a tiebreaker game last October for the division title, but Chicago has won the most regular-season games of any team in baseball over the past four years. That's the sort of thing about which St. Louis used to brag: year-after-year dominance. After missing the postseason the past three seasons, the Cardinals are serious about a return to the playoffs.
"That's every year," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Just because they didn't make the playoffs the last few years, it doesn't mean they weren't battling every year. We just came out on top."
Right now, the Cardinals are on top, off to a 20-11 start. The Cubs, meanwhile, have righted the ship, going 14-5 since a 2-7 trip to start the season. They've won four in a row, scoring 32 runs in the process.
"They're playing well," Rizzo said. "We're playing well."
The result is a treat for two fan bases -- and a national audience Sunday night. By then, we'll know if January's comments -- which Bryant indicated he never thought he had to apologize for -- will have any meaning on the field. He is likely to be the Cubs' second hitter in the bottom of the first inning Friday, standing just in front of Molina. That could be interesting.
"I know they've commented and said that they're going to be fun games, they're going to be more intense, so we'll see what happens," Bryant said. "But I don't know about water under the bridge. I thought they were harmless comments. You know, I respect that team. I respect the whole organization, so there's no hard feelings on my end."
The other side may feel differently, but more important than the rhetoric this weekend is who gains or loses in the standings. This is the first time since September 2017 that the Cubs and Cardinals have faced off as the top two teams in the division. That's not that long ago but since then, both organizations have had to rebound from down moments -- the Cubs from their collapse last season, and the Cardinals from the firing of longtime manager Mike Matheny, who was replaced by Mike Shildt. Both teams are currently feeling better about themselves, but which will maintain that feeling come late Sunday night?
"St. Louis is a crazy baseball town, they love their Cardinals for sure," Descalso said. "And I'm sure they can't wait to restart the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry this year. Same goes for our fans. It should be fun."
ESPN's Michele Steele contributed to this story.