Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will keep escalating in 2016

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Cubs-Cardinals rivalry will keep escalating in 2016

HAZLETON, Pa. – Joe Maddon told diehard Cubs fans exactly what they wanted to hear, blasting the Cardinals, sarcastically saying he never read Branch Rickey’s sacred book on how to play baseball and wondering if Tony Soprano had ordered the hit from the St. Louis dugout.

This rivalry needed some new attitude, missing big personalities like Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. Maddon delivered with that rant inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon in September, calling out the eye-for-an-eye retaliation after the Cardinals drilled All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo with a purpose pitch.

It took 123 years before the Cubs finally got their shot at the Cardinals in the playoffs, and they went through almost 500 bottles of champagne after they eliminated a 100-win team in October, partying in Wrigleyville as if they had just won the World Series.

With Jason Heyward and John Lackey defecting from St. Louis, this rivalry will only escalate in 2016. You know the Cubs manager will be right in the middle of the action.

“You got to be a little bit tough to survive around here to be successful,” Maddon said this week while staging charity events for his Hazleton Integration Project. “So when it comes down to a fight, you’re not going to take that from anybody.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Maddon competed on the basketball playgrounds, baseball diamonds and football fields in this old Pennsylvania coal-mining town. He absorbed blue-collar values from his late father, Joe Sr., a plumber who never seemed to take a vacation, and his mother, Beanie, still working to this day at Third Base Luncheonette, which looks unchanged since its opening in 1949. He grew up in an Italian-Polish family in a neighborhood filled with shot-and-a-beer bars, learning how to talk fast and use his street smarts.

“I love it, man,” Maddon said. “I absolutely love it. I grew up a Cardinal fan – a fierce Cardinal fan – and now I get to work against that feeling that I had as a kid.

“They got us early. We eventually were able to catch up later in the season. I think it’s healthy for both organizations. It’s healthy for baseball for a significant, proper rivalry between those two teams.

“I know they’re not going to back down. I know we’re not going to back down. (We’ll) hopefully continue to nurture it in the future. It’s no different than the Red Sox versus the Yankees (because) Cardinals-Cubs – as two relevant teams – is very good for baseball. I’m jacked up about it.”

There should be fireworks with the Cubs and Cardinals playing each other at least 19 times in 2016. Heyward looked at the young Cubs and the aging core in St. Louis and reportedly turned down $200 million offers, taking eight years, $184 million and opt-out flexibility, signing the biggest contract in franchise history.

[MORE: What will Joe Maddon's lineup look like in 2016?]

The Cardinals will have to replace Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field and across-the-board offensive contributions (13 homers, 23 stolen bases, .797 OPS). After getting blown away by the Red Sox in the David Price negotiations, St. Louis will also have to account for Lackey’s 33 starts and 218 innings.

“The Cardinals are going to be a formidable opponent next year – and for years to come,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “They’re going to take the resources that they didn’t commit to Jason Heyward and John Lackey and reallocate them to other players. The approach I take with the Cardinals is the same I used to take with the Yankees when I was in Boston – I don’t pay too close attention to their moves in the offseason.

[ALSO: Maddon knows Cubs are the target after big offseason]

“I kind of forget them and focus on our own club and expect them to win 95 to 100 games every year. That’s the standard we’ve set for ourselves. We want to win the division. We know we’re going to have to win close to 100 games in order to give ourselves a chance to make that happen.”

Opening Day starter Adam Wainwright is 34 years old and Lance Lynn will miss the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Yadier Molina has caught more than 12,000 innings in the big leagues and will turn 34 this summer. This could also be the last year in St. Louis for seven-time All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, who will turn 36 in January.

St. Louis also didn’t win 11 World Series titles by accident. The Cardinals know what it’s like to be the hunted team in the National League. After winning the offseason, the Cubs will now have to play with a target on their back.

“What’s gone on (with) the ascension of the Cubs – and where the Cardinals have been forever – we had to catch up to them,” Maddon said. “That was our responsibility. We did it for one year. We still have a lot to prove. And I understand that.

“But based on what happened this year – Johnny coming over, Jason coming over, (the fact) that we did catch them a little bit towards the end of last season – that should really stoke the fires. But we have to go out there and reprove ourselves.”

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

The Cubs gave Kyle Schwarber time to sort things out by sending him down to Triple-A Iowa, and Schwarber's first game back in the minors shows he may need some time.

Schwarber's first game with the Iowa Cubs was a forgettable one. He struck out in his first three plate appearances before singling in his last at-bat. He struck out looking in the first inning before striking out swinging his next two times up.

Schwarber batted third in the lineup and played left field. Iowa won 1-0 against the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

He last played for Iowa in 2015, but only spent 17 games there. He hit .333 with three homers and a 1.036 OPS in that short stint. Before getting sent down Schwarber was hitting .171 with the Cubs with 12 home runs, but also 75 strikeouts in 64 games.

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

WASHINGTON – The Cubs already visited the White House. The Washington Nationals are still the team with so much more to prove.

Dusty Baker needs this October to cement his spot in Cooperstown, the way Joe Maddon put the final bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant took different routes out of Las Vegas, but only one has the World Series ring to go with the Rookie of the Year/MVP hardware. While the clock is ticking on Max Scherzer and that championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jon Lester megadeal essentially paid for itself.

Cubs vs. Nationals is supposed to be a circle-your-calendar event. Except the Cubs rolled out a Cactus League lineup on Monday night and Nationals Park featured rows and rows of empty seats amid a crowd of 29,651 where the celebrity vibe became more George Will than A-Rod and J-Lo.

The Cubs still hung on for a 5-4 victory that might have been their best under-the-circumstances win in a season that will hit the halfway point this weekend, showing why they’re the defending champs.

“It is exciting – don’t get me wrong,” Maddon said. “It’s just that we’re attending with a different group than we thought we would be attending this party with.

“And that’s OK, because these guys now are getting the kind of experience that is going to be very beneficial to us in August and September.”

A rash of injuries forced the Cubs to start Jeimer Candelario at third base and Mark Zagunis in right field and Javier Baez kept making highlight-reel plays while Addison Russell rested his sore right shoulder, leaping to grab to a Harper line drive and racing across the left-field line and sliding into the wall to make another spectacular catch in foul territory.

“Games like this is what we need right now – competition,” said Baez, who struck out in his first three at-bats and finished at 2-for-5. “Playing tight games like this will make us make adjustments better and be more in the game.”

With Kyle Schwarber more than 1,000 miles away in Des Moines and hitting the reset button at Triple-A Iowa, Willson Contreras became the leadoff hitter of the day and launched Gio Gonzalez’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field seats.

The young Cubs manufactured their next run in the eighth inning when Baez stole third base and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s perfectly placed bunt into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base line. The bullpen is Washington’s Achilles’ heel and showed with a three-run meltdown in the ninth inning.

Eddie Butler – who began the season in the Iowa rotation – neutralized a powerful Washington lineup while getting just one strikeout in five innings. Maddon pushed a lot of bullpen buttons, not going to Wade Davis for a four-out save and then summoning the All-Star closer when Hector Rondon couldn’t work with a five-run cushion.

In a dramatic finish, Davis survived giving up three hits, a walk and a wild pitch, striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a curveball to end a game that lasted 3 hours and 54 minutes.

“To play so well and not win that game would have really been awful,” Maddon said.

The Cubs needed this with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looming the next two nights. But for all of their talent and regular-season dominance – three division titles since 2012 and close to a 100-win pace this year – the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series in a city where the Senators once won it all in 1924.

This could be an epic matchup in October, bursting with stars and pumping with bad blood. Just listen to Baker during his pregame media briefing, responding to a question about a power hitter like Anthony Rizzo batting leadoff: “I ain’t worried about the Cubs. They can do their thing.”

Or Baker dismissing Maddon’s mind games and the possibility of intentionally walking Harper when Ryan Zimmerman is a Triple Crown contender: “It’s a new time and a new day.”

The last word from Maddon, who keeps insisting the 39-37 Cubs have a hot streak in them and that he digs the youth movement: “If this was a spring training lineup, we might get a call.”