It’s back to the field Sunday for the St. Louis Cardinals. Only this time, it’s for real.
The interminable string of spring-training games is over and the Cardinals are set to face their longtime rivals, the Chicago Cubs, in the regular-season opener at 7:05 p.m. Sunday at new-look Wrigley Field. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
It will be a battle of dominant pitchers as Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38 ERA in 2014) will oppose left-hander Jon Lester (16-11, 2.46 ERA), who signed a six-year, $155 million contract with the Cubs on Dec. 15.
Wainwright has overcome an offseason cleanup procedure on his elbow and an abdominal strain suffered in spring training, but he will be watched closely in a season-long attempt to keep him fresh for what the Cardinals hope will be another deep run into the playoffs.
“He’s pitched a lot over the last few years, and I think anything we can do to help manage that would only be smart,” Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said.
Wainwright joked during the winter that he had a “bionic arm,” a reference to his elbow surgery. He fully expects to lead a rotation, and a team, that is the favorite to win the National League Central and perhaps advance beyond the NL Championship Series, where they met their demise last October at the hands of eventual World Champion San Francisco.
“We perfectly expect to go out there and do it again,” said Wainwright, 33. “One thing we do know is we have great players here. We should win; there’s no reason we shouldn’t win. We need to go out there and execute and we should be fine.”
Mike Matheny enters his fourth season as the Cardinals’ manager, and he is aware of the pressure to meet expectations.
“I realize I’m in one of the most volatile positions in America,” Matheny said. “You know if things don’t go right, it should come down on me. That’s how this game has always been. What I want to do is make sure I cover my bases and control the things I can control to do what I feel should be done around here. And not get distracted.
“If we come up short and we’re just short on talent, then so be it. But there’s other things we can control. We’ve got to do our best.”
The Cardinals lineup could look like this: Matt Carpenter, 3B; Jason Heyward, RF; Matt Holliday, LF; Matt Adams, 1B; Yadier Molina, C; Jhonny Peralta, SS; Jon Jay, CF; Kolten Wong, 2B; Wainwright, P. Wainwright is 11-7 with a 4.09 ERA in 36 career games, including 27 starts, against the Cubs.
Heyward, acquired from the Atlanta Braves for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, is expected to provide a boost for a lineup that was streaky and lacked power last season.
“We’ve got a lot of winning players,” Holliday said. “We’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of guys that know how to play the game. We feel pretty good about that.”
Lester, meanwhile, is the centerpiece of what the Cubs hope will be a season that sees them contend for the NL Central title, although many believe they are a year away. Lester, 31, beat the Cardinals twice in the 2013 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, but has made just one regular-season start against them in his career.
The Cubs also hired Joe Maddon as their new manager after Maddon exercised an opt-out clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Chicago returned two of their highly touted prospects, third baseman Kris Bryant and second baseman Javier Baez, to the minor leagues.