Dexter Fowler has impressed all of his new St. Louis Cardinals teammates.
But the charismatic center fielder makes it clear that he’s equally impressed by them.
“You see the pitching staff, the bullpen, the whole nine. It’s not just one thing,” Fowler said in his appraisal of the Cardinals as they prepare for their season opener against Fowler’s former team, the world-champion Chicago Cubs, at 7:35 p.m. Sunday at Busch Stadium.
“Let the guys compete. I think that’s huge,” Fowler said. “We’re going to go out there and compete. All the championship teams you look at, they’re a team. That’s a big part of it.”
Fowler is the focal point of the Cardinals’ renewed emphasis on baserunning and defense. With a five-year, $82.5-million contract in hand, he’s ready to get to work.
“I want to come over here with a clean slate and see where it takes us,” said Fowler, who batted .276 with 13 home runs, 48 RBIs and 84 runs scored in 125 games in 2016. “Everybody has treated me well, the fans have been great, and I’m excited for the future.”
The Cardinals will send right-hander Carlos Martinez to the mound for his first Opening-Day assignment. Martinez (16-9, 3.04 ERA last year) will oppose Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA).
St. Louis (86-76) failed to qualify for the playoffs last year, its first miss in five seasons under manager Mike Matheny. With Fowler part of a solid everyday lineup that includes Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz, Yadier Molina and Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals are determined to make that a blip on their record of success.
What better way to measure themselves than a season-opening series against the Cubs? Chicago also will provide the opposition at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday and 12:45 p.m. Wednesday.
The Cubs finished 17 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals last year and return many of the players that led them to their first World Series title in 108 years, including everyday contributors like National League MVP Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras.
“Every single year in the big leagues, I’ve been to the playoffs, and (2016) was the first year I haven’t,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “It left a bitter taste in my mouth. Not just me, but everybody else. You don’t want to feel that again.
“Everybody is coming in with a chip on their shoulder. We’re ready to go. We know what the Cubs are bringing. We know what the (Pittsburgh) Pirates are bringing. We know we have a pretty tough division again, so let’s get after it.”
Former Cardinals Jon Jay, Jason Heyward and John Lackey also will play roles for the Cubs in the season-opening series, with Lackey pitching Wednesday against Lance Lynn in Lynn’s first game since 2015. In the Tuesday game, Adam Wainwright will work against Jake Arrieta.
Sunday will kick off with the a rally at Ballpark Village from noon to 4:45 p.m. Gates to the stadium open at 5:05 p.m., with all fans 21 and older receiving a magnet schedule.
Pregame ceremonies will begin at 6:45 p.m. with the Budweiser Clydesdales making their circuit around the stadium. Cardinals Hall of Famers will arrive on 2017 Ford Mustang convertibles, followed by the players on 2017 Ford F-150 Raptors.
Ingrid Berry, the daughter of the late Chuck Berry, will perform the national anthem. Former Cardinals pitcher John Tudor will deliver the ceremonial first pitch to Tim McCarver.
Changes at Busch
The Cardinals grounds crew capitalized on moderate February temperatures and installed a new playing surface. It is composed of Kentucky Bluegrass grown in Fort Morgan, Colo.
To further protect fans sitting in the lower box seats, protective netting has been extended to the outfield end of both dugouts. The netting previously ended at the home-plate side of the dugouts.
The Family Pavilion in center field has undergone remodeling. The area will feature a Kids Kitchen concession stand with portions designed for a smaller appetite. There also is a virtual-reality area featuring interactive games.
Remember the recently announced stadium policy regarding backpacks. Multicompartment backpacks no longer are allowed inside the ballpark. Duffel bags, tote bags, cinch bags, diaper bags and purses no larger than 16 inches by 8 inches still are permitted.