The flashpoint, and the turning point, occurred in September 2015.
Wrigley Field. A pleasant Friday afternoon game … or so we thought.
Cubs reliever Dan Haren grazed Matt Holliday’s batting helmet with an errant pitch. Later in the game, Cardinals’ reliever Matt Belisle evidently retaliated by hitting Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo on the back of the leg.
And that’s when Cubs manager Joe Maddon seized on the moment as part of an overall strategy to alter the psychology of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry.
A rivalry that had long been dominated by St. Louis.
But when Belisle clipped Rizzo, Madden had his opportunity to send a message to the Cardinals: we will not back down. And we will kick your ass. After the Cubs’ 8-3 win that day, Maddon staged a memorable performance in post-game news conference.
“I never read that particular book that the Cardinals wrote way back in the day, ” Maddon said. “I was a big Branch Rickey fan, but I never read this book that the Cardinals had written on how to play baseball.”
Maddon had more barking to do. “I have no history with the Cardinals except I used to love them growing up,” he said. “That really showed me a lot today in a negative way. I don’t know who put out the hit. I don’t know if Tony Soprano is in the dugout. I didn’t see him in there. But we’re not going to put up with it, from them or anybody else.
“I just want them to know this. We’re not going to take that. Very simple.”
The next say, during the Cubs’ 5-4 victory, Cubs pitchers struck three Cardinals’ hitters during the game. Maddon denied having an urge to retaliate or get revenge, but the motive was very clear.
The Cubs were no longer the laughable losers … they would no longer serve as patsies, to be bullied by the superior and haughty Cardinals. The Cubs may have been chumps in the past. But now they planned to become the champs. The Cubs would no longer cower in the Cardinals’ presence.
So when the Cubs plunked three Cardinals the day after Maddon’s orchestrated and effective tirade, the Cards had no response. There was no payback. Manager Mike Matheny apparently declined to instruct a STL pitcher to hit back with a hit-by-pitch.
Maddon won the standoff.
The Cardinals stood down .
The Cardinals did nothing as three of their guys were symbolically targeted by Cubs pitchers.
And this rivalry turned.
The terms of the rivalry — and the roles — got flipped.
“This is a tale of two franchises — one with a storied history of winning and another with a 106-year championship drought,” Chicago Tribune baseball columnist Paul Sullivan correctly wrote that weekend. “The animosity between their fans never has wavered, but the Cubs have had few opportunities to talk smack over the years. But this is a new year and the Cubs believe it’s the start of a new era.”
The Cubs are the bullies now.
The Cardinals are scrambling to match up, and stand up, when taking on the Cubs. Especially at Wrigley.
A few weeks after that Sept. 18 skirmish, the Cubs smashed their way past the Cardinals in the 2015 NLDS. The Cardinals won the opener of best-of-five series, but the Cubs responded by winning the next three games, blasting 10 homers to knocking the Cardinals out.
That was another pivotal moment in the Cubs-Cards conflict.
And long before Maddon won the mind-game competition by threatening the Cardinals after Rizzo had been struck, the Cubs were already making their move. All along, Maddon said the emerging Cubs could not be taken seriously as a contender until every player in his clubhouse took the field with confidence, knowing that the Cubs could beat the Cardinals.
Maddon worked on his players’ heads, getting the younger Cubs to believe they could triumph over the Cardinals. And at the same time, it’s clear to me that Maddon found his way to get inside the Cardinals’ heads. That includes Matheny.
The reaffirmation came over the weekend at Wrigley, when the Cubs won all three games of a critically important series in the Cardinals’ late push to get to first place in the NL Central.
All three games were up for grabs. Both teams had the chance to make a power move and claim the prize.
The Cardinals led Friday’s game 2-1 after five innings .. and lost 8-2.
The teams were tied going into the bottom of the fourth on Saturday … Cubs win, 4-1.
In Sunday’s last-chance opportunity to regain valuable lost ground after losing the first two at Wrigley, and facing a dire situation if the Cubs could complete the sweep, the Cards got a bold three-run homer from Dexter Fowler in the sixth to tie it at 3-3 … alas, the Cubs prevailed 4-3.
When the Cardinals finally escaped Wrigley Field, they were six games down to the Cubs in the standings. They were two games behind second-place Milwaukee. The Cardinals’ chance for the NL’s second wild-card spot is flickering; they trail Colorado by 4.5. And Milwaukee is ahead of St. Louis in that race too.
For the hopeful Cardinals, this was a damaging, demoralizing weekend. At one point last week, the Cubs’ lead over the Cardinals had slipped to two games. Suddenly, the Cards’ deficit had ballooned to six, and only 13 games remain on their schedule.
According to Monday’s playoff odds at FanGraphs, the Cardinals have a 0.9 percent chance of winning the division, and a 3.8 percent chance of grabbing the second wild card. At that up, and the Cardinals’ probability of making the playoffs is down to 4.7 percent.
The Cardinals were tight all weekend. You could just sense that something bad would take them down. You had the sense that the Cubs were the more confident, calm team. You had the sense that the Cardinals played these games with doubt in their minds.
You could see it in the fielding blunder by pitcher Carlos Martinez that handed the momentum, and Friday’s game, to the Cubs. You could see it in the many nervous at-bats, with Cards coming up empty with a chance to make a difference. The Cardinals were 2 for 14 with runners in scoring position in the three games.
You could tell by the lethargic offense; after taking that 2-1 lead into the sixth inning Friday the Cardinals managed to score in only two of the 22 remaining innings of the series. (A solo homer by Matt Carpenter in Saturday’s eighth inning, and Fowler’s missile in Sunday’s sixth.)
You could see it when the Cubs’ relievers marched into all three games and didn’t give up a run, or even an extra-base hit, in nine innings of lockdown work.
One team on that field believed they’d win.
The other team was grasping … maybe even gasping.
Should we be surprised?
The Cardinals are 4-11 against the Cubs this season, with the team still having four to play against each other next week at Busch Stadium. That 4-11 mark amounts to a .267 winning percentage. If that holds, consider this: that .267 winning percentage for the Cardinals against the Cubs would be the second-worst in a season in the 56 years since the 1962 NL expansion.
The Cardinals went 1-8 at Wrigley this season.
The Cardinals are 1-6 against the Cubs in ’17 in games decided by a run.
Since July of 2015, the Cardinals have lost 30 of 48 games to the Cubs; NLDS included.
And since July 2015, the Cubs and Cardinals have played 15 series against each other. After the hole got deeper at Wrigley over the weekend, the Cards’ record vs. the Cubs in those 15 series is now a sad and thin 2-10 — with three series splits.
Here’s the thing: the Cardinals haven’t been a terrible team since July 2015.
They’ve just been terrible against the Cubs.
The Cardinals are 18-30 vs. the Cubs … but over the same period of time — since July 6, 2015 — the Cardinals are 38 games over .500 against all other opponents.
That’s a very good .554 winning percentage, but the Cubs keep blocking them.
After asserting themselves and taking control of the rivalry, the Cubs have eliminated the Cardinals from the 2015 postseason, played a role in the 2016 Cardinals missing the playoffs by one game, and denied the 2017 Cards’ upset bid in the NL Central. If the Cardinals fail to make the playoffs — a virtual certainty — then that would make three consecutive seasons of coming up short, and with the Cubs as a leading cause.
As I wrote in this spot last week, the Cubs own the Cardinals.
And that’s even truer now.
It’s gone just as Joe Maddon planned when he set out to rearrange the psychology of this rivalry.
Thanks for reading …