By Nathan Tucker
In this installment of Bridge Sports Classics, we travel from the Lewis and Clark Community College (L&C) campus down I-255, and take the 55 exit to St. Louis, and head to Busch Stadium, three years ago this month. Cardinals Opening Day, 2017. Cards. Cubs.
This was not your usual meeting of the famed I-55 rivalry. For the first time in 108 years, the Cubs were visiting St. Louis as defending World Series Champions, the culmination of a drastic shift in the power dynamic of this storied clash.
For years and years, the Cubs were the lovable losers. In 1997, asked about the Chicago Bulls rebuilding after a fifth NBA crown, Michael Jordan famously said the Cubs had been rebuilding for 42 years. At the time, you might even say the Cubs were so bad they were not the Cardinals main rival.
In that time, the Cardinals won multiple World Series, had periods of time where they were playoff regulars and constant threats to capture the pennant, often battling the New York Mets. Some of the best Cardinals teams to ever step foot on a diamond played in the era where the Cubs were struggling to bring 10k people into Wrigley Field.
Fast forward back to 2017, the Cubs got their rings, including former Cardinal pariah Jason Heyward. After the 2015 season, Heyward left St. Louis for Chicago, (correctly) claiming they were built better for the long term, and obviously better built for the short term.
Cardinals fans never quite took to Heyward. He was judged negatively, not being quite the offensive powerhouse he was in his years in Atlanta prior to joining St. Louis. Upon leaving the club, he cited Chicago’s younger core as the reasoning.
Then Cardinals manager Mike Matheny took exception to that. So did the fanbase. He was booed vociferously upon his return in 2016.
And again, during his Opening Day introduction before this game.
“If somebody boos me here, that means they were not happy to see me leave,” Heyward said to ESPN, prior to his 2016 return. “I’m kind of glad that people weren’t happy to see me leave. The fans should enjoy it, and we’re going to enjoy it.”
Dexter Fowler was on the opposite side of this coin. One of the Cubs’ older players in their miraculous World Series run, he gained newfound respect around baseball for becoming a veteran voice in the clubhouse.
Not only that, he was fun. Talking to ESPN prior to this Opening Day 2017 matchup, Fowler recalled the first day of spring training, where he felt the team was going through the motions in warmups. Wanting to relax the vibe, Fowler brought a bluetooth radio and started playing music.
The Cardinals desperately needed a shot of fun that Dexter Fowler offered. Toward the mid-2010s, “The Cardinal Way” morphed from winning baseball philosophy to a regimented method of behavior without wins to show for it.
Under Mike Matheny, the infamous “Cardinal Way” was the letter of the law, and Matheny notoriously had disagreements with multiple players about his (often wrong) approaches to the game of baseball. Matheny would go on to butt heads with Dexter Fowler until he was relieved of his duties.
The embodiment of the positives of “The Cardinal Way” was and still is star catcher Yadier Molina. Molina had his own quibbles with the organization. After years of service to the Cardinals, multiple World Series wins, more Gold Gloves than you can shake a stick at, the team was in no hurry to resign their star.
Opening Day 2017 was the deadline day for Molina and the Cardinals. He did not want to negotiate a contract during the season, and would be a free agent after. As of 24 hours to the first pitch of the 2017 season, the two sides had not come to agreement.
Only a few hours before the Budweiser Clydesdales initiated the Opening Day ceremonies at Busch Stadium, Molina and the Cardinals agreed to a deal that would keep him in St. Louis through the (now in jeopardy) 2020 season.
The game itself was a showcase of what the Cardinals thought would be their arm of the future. A then 25-year-old Carlos Martinez was made Opening Day starter on the heels of two great seasons, and he threw a brilliant ballgame, 7 ⅓ innings of scoreless baseball.
It was an outing that Cardinals fans grew accustomed to in 2017. Martinez secured less victories, 12, than his 16 win season a year prior, but posted career best numbers in numerous categories, including strikeout/walk ratio and WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched).
He needed a great performance on this day, as Cubs ace Jon Lester was also on his game. The only run either team scored until the 8th inning was off a Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly in the third inning, new Cardinal Dexter Fowler would cross the plate to score the first run of the 2017 campaign.
Coming to the end of a great performance, Martinez started to get a bit erratic, putting a few men on to start out the top of the 8th inning. Mike Matheny makes the call to bring in Seung-Hwan Oh, who was probably the best reliever for the Cardinals in 2016.
The rain begins to fall at Busch Stadium as the game starts to come to a crescendo. Oh loads the bases by plunking the first batter he faces, Kyle Schwarber, and the Cardinals fans in attendance start to sense that their single run lead is in grave danger.
Seung-Hwan Oh redeems himself and keeps the team in front by getting two of the biggest bats in the Cubs lineup, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, to pop up to right field. Crisis averted. For now.
Stephen Piscotty, seen in 2017 as part of the long-term future of the Cardinals outfield, walks to lead off the Redbird half of the 8th. Kolten Wong, replacing Jedd Gyorko defensively much to Wong’s chagrin, grounded out, bringing Randal Grichuk to the plate.
Grichuk was also once thought of as being the future of the Cardinals outfield. A promising outfield prospect, Grichuk most wowed the Cardinals and their fans in 2015, hitting .276 with a .877 OPS in just 103 games.
While his production would not ever match that output again, fleeting flashes of brilliance kept him a fan favorite. This game was one of those flashes.
Grichuk roped Cubs reliever Pedro Strop’s 0-2 fastball deep into right, finding the bleacher seats and putting the Cardinals up 3-0, giving their lead some much needed cushion. The Cubs would need to mount an impressive rally to stay alive in the 9th.
As if this game were scripted like a professional wrestling match, they did just that. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny went with his gut to stick with Seung-Hwan Oh who looked a bit rocky in the 8th, all while starter Carlos Martinez can do nothing but cheer from the dugout.
Oh loses control for a second time in the game and hits his second batter in as many innings to start the 9th. Just when he starts to find his control and place his pitches, forces outside of his control come back to bite the Cardinals.
Jason Heyward steps to the plate, greeted by boos from the fans who had not made a beeline for dry ground. He makes weak contact and grounds the ball between first and second base.
A lapse in judgement from Matt Carpenter, to put it kindly, sees what could have been a routine double play turn into runners on first and second with nobody out. Seung-Hwan Oh thought he had just about turned the tide, and now has to face the tying run in Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras.
A no doubter.
Clean off the bat in the rain.
3-3. Whole new ball game.
Cubs fans at Busch jubilant as Contreras rounds the bases, seeing their defending champs do what champs do, claw back and fight when everyone counts them out. There is a reason this is the best Cubs team in 11 decades.
The Cardinals needed a hero in the bottom of the 9th. With Matt Carpenter due up, it would be a perfect opportunity for the fan favorite to redeem his blunder that partially caused the game to be tied in the first place.
He pops up. Well, there goes that idea. One out. Seung-Hwan Oh is pinch hit for by Jose Martinez, looking to make a name for himself and insert into the Cardinals outfield conversation.
In 2017, Jose Martinez was one of the best hitters in baseball, hitting .306 with a .897 OPS, numbers few rookies even dream of. He got that season off on the right foot by smacking a double to the right field wall.
Up steps Yadier Molina, with the chance to be a hero merely hours after pledging loyalty to St. Louis for four more seasons. Chants of “YADI! YADI! YADI!” roar from the soaking wet Cards fans in attendance.
And then, a baseball first: the automatic intentional walk, where the batter does not even have to stand at the plate to be rewarded 1st base. Implemented in the offseason before in an effort to make a three hour baseball game a two hour and fifty-nine minute baseball game, this was MLB’s new rule in action for the very first time.
Cardinals fans booed the cowardly Cubs for not pitching to their hero. Molina shrugs his shoulders and moseys to 1st base. Kolten Wong draws a walk.
Bases loaded. In steps Randal Grichuk, bat still smoking from the home run he hit in the inning preceding.
Boom. (Well, not as big a boom as the Contreras boom)
Clean off the bat in the rain.
A lined shot finds the outfield warning track and Jose Martinez scoots home from third. Grichuk’s third RBI of the game was potentially the biggest of his career, sealing a thrilling Opening Day victory against the defending World Series Champions.
Seung-Hwan Oh miraculously claims the victory for the game, and while it was not all his fault the original lead evaporated, he did not make the job very easy on himself by beaning two guys in two innings.
This game ultimately would not matter in the standings. The Cubs cruised to a 2017 NL Central Division title, nine games ahead of the Cardinals who did not really come close to making the playoffs.
The Cubs continued to dominate, the Cardinals continued in their late-Matheny-era mediocrity. The power dynamic mentioned earlier in this writing was not changed by this one game.
But it was a hell of a ballgame. For that moment, watching the team celebrating in the rain at home plate, the Cardinals were on top again. Order was restored.