Cardinals and Cubs: Why a playoff series would be enjoyable 

The St. Louis Cardinals left Chicago Sunday with a playoff berth and more bumps than wins, most of them on the body of their second baseman Kolten Wong, who was hit by pitches twice on Saturday.

The Cubs, who will clinch a playoff berth shortly, won two out of three, which makes it four out of their last six against the team with the best record in baseball. Don’t think the Cardinals aren’t counting, because the Cubs are only a wild-card victory over the Pirates away — with either Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester to choose from — from a best-of-five first-round series with the Cards.

If they do match up, there’s one certainty: the two teams will meet en masse on the field, and it won’t be to exchange lineup cards.

They didn’t over the weekend, but they could have at several junctures, which shows both teams are long not only on talent, but restraint.

On Friday Cubs pitcher Dan Haren hit Matt Holliday in the head, and even if Haren’s best fastball is only a little faster than Hector Rondon’s warmup tosses, all knew Cardinal Justice would be swift in coming. Given that it was only the second at-bat after a second prolonged absence this year for Holliday, it was hard to blame the Cardinals.

For years under their previous manager Tony La Russa, hit by pitches seemed to be defined thusly: if our pitcher hits your batter, it got away. If your pitcher hits our batter, it merits retaliation. That’s a philosophy shared by 29 other teams, perhaps, but La Russa made it more of a moral crusade, and seemed to act on it often. That made Pirates fans wonder last year when Andrew McCutchen’s ribs were broken after Diamondbacks star Paul Goldschmidt’s season was ended, both by pitched balls. Was it a coincidence that La Russa is now a D-backs’ executive?

Matt Belisle delivered Cardinal Justice to Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs best hitter, wrapping a pitch behind his legs. It was the second time Rizzo was hit Friday and Belisle was appropriately ejected.

The vertically challenged pitch was a muted response, given Holliday’s beaning, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s post-game press conference was like John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence: he wanted to embellish it to make sure the Cardinals, like King George III, got the message.

“That really showed me a lot today  in a negative way,” Maddon said Friday. “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.

“We don’t start stuff but we will finish stuff. To become this vigilante group that all of a sudden wants to get their own pound of flesh, that’s absolutely insane and ridiculous and wrong. Just because we didn’t go out there is not a sign of weakness. We didn’t go out there out of respect to the umpires.”

The Tony Soprano reference was a good one if only because mob violence, unlike baseball, is one place history favors Chicago over St. Louis.

On Saturday Cubs pitches hit Cardinals batters three times, Wong twice, and the last one earned Rondon and Maddon ejections, the latter despite his respect for the umpires.  Maddon didn’t say whether the Cubs were starting stuff or finishing it, but shockingly, he denied that any were intentional.

“I know nobody wants to believe me, I know you’re not going to believe me,” Maddon said. “All the Cardinal Nation, God bless you, you’re not going to want to believe me. I get it. So there’s no way for me to sit here and ameliorate your concerns. None of that was intentional.”

There’s good reason to gawk in disbelief at Maddon’s statement, but it’s not because of the hit batsmen. A major league manager used ameliorate in a press conference? Correctly?  All of a sudden, the double-switch doesn’t seem so hard to master.

Maddon was at least two-thirds right on the crux of his statement, though Fernando Rodney plunked Wong in the back. Then again, Rodney has a 5.01 ERA this year, 33 walks and eight hit batters in 59.1 innings, so there’s a precedent for his wildness.

The greater question was what Rodney was doing in the game at all with the Cubs ahead.

“We go about our business the way we go about it. I don’t know how else to say it differently,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “We just realize that almost every day we have somebody saying something about us. And that’s just part of the business. We’ve just got to stick to what we’ve got to do and go play the game.”

On Sunday the Cardinals went about their business, winning the game, hitting one batter with a pitch and two fielders with take-out slides. Jason Heyward’s was necessary to extend the first inning for Stephen Piscotty’s two-out home run; Yadier Molina’s wasn’t on a softly hit ground ball.

On both Cubs infielders looked a bit as if they were trying to cross Michigan Ave. against the light, and Cardinals runners slid as if their inner GPS didn’t announce their arrival at the base until they were already past it. If the Rams had blockers who hit as hard and as far downfield as Heyward and Molina, they would have had more than 67 yards rushing Sunday.

You have to wonder if Heyward and Molina were motivated to break up the double play, by Cardinals hit batters or Cubs victories in five of the previous six games. Or all of the above.

“He (Molina) said, ‘I am sorry, my bad,’” Cubs shortstop Addison Russell said. “He said he was looking down and the bag was on him. I think it was a clean play, anyway. I didn’t get hurt. He didn’t get hurt. No hard feelings.”

Of course, given Chris Coghlan’s slide earlier last week on Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang, the Cubs are in no position to accuse another team of making an unsafe slide into second. As any number of Pirates fans will attest, Coghlan’s slide on Kang was, like some famous Florida State field goal attempts, high and wide right. And Kang is out for the year.

It was a forgiving response from Russell, perhaps because of his youth, perhaps because he meant it.

We’ll see if he’s quite as civil if he gets the same treatment next month.

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