The rivalry between the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers has heated up over the past seven years, thanks to the cities’ proximity, the fact that both teams were usually in contention for the National League Central title, and the presence of Willson Contreras.
But the Brewers are heavily favored to win the division this season while the Cubs have made the transition since last summer’s sale.
There were thousands of empty seats at Wrigley Field Thursday for Opening Day and even more on a frosty Saturday afternoon that saw the Cubs win 9-0 in a chippy game that included a bench clearing incident in the eighth after Keegan Thompson. hit Brewers outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
Despite an announced crowd of 30,369, only the bleachers were mostly packed on a 44-degree afternoon with strong winds blowing in from right field.
Is it just an early season anomaly caused by the spring cold? The consequences of the lockout?
Or has the mood changed at Wrigley since the Cubs unloaded their biggest stars and went into semi-reconstruction mode?
“I didn’t feel any difference on opening day, really,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said before Saturday’s game. “I think it’s the same vibe. At the start of the season, every team should have hope.
The Cubs have once again given hope that they won’t just be contenders in 2022, starting the season 2-0 for the first time since 2016.
Justin Steele pitched five shutout innings, rookie Seiya Suzuki drove in three runs and the Cubs capitalized on the pitching spree of the Brewers, who combined to walk seven, hit three batters and allow a run on wild pitch.
Naturally, one of the Cubs who fell was Contreras, who was hit in the first two games of the series and 15 times by Brewers pitchers during his career. Contreras took a few deep breaths after being hit in the back and walked calmly towards the first, but was clearly annoyed by the frequency of wayward throws.
Ian Happ was hit in the left knee by a slider from Trevor Gott in the seventh, forcing him out of the game. Thompson threw inside McCutchen the next inning, setting him back, then dozing him, prompting McCutchen to bark at the pitcher down the baseline as Contreras followed him and gave him a shout.
There were only tough talks between the teams when they met on the indoor pitch. Thompson was ejected for throwing at McCutchen.
The Cubs went 4-15 against the Brewers last season, but Sunday will look for a three-game sweep. Marcus Stroman, their first major free agent signing of the offseason, is set to make his debut for the Cubs.
Woodruff, who finished fifth in National League Cy Young voting last season, put the Brewers in a quick holeshot with just six batters on the bottom of the first without allowing a hit. He started with a walk, a slap batter and two more walks, forcing home a run on a free pass for Happ.
Frank Schwindel’s RBI knockout and Suzuki’s sacrificial fly — his first major league run — gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead. They hit in the fifth against Woodruff and reliever José Ureña, scoring two of their three-pointers on Ureña’s goal-laden walk to Suzuki and a wild pitch, turning the game into a laugh.
The Cubs aren’t anyone’s choice to win the division, but neither player sees this as a rebuilding season.
“I don’t think guys feel that at all,” Schwindel said. “Everyone is hungry. Everyone had a good spring. We have some big additions with Suzuki, Stroman, some of the relievers.
“I don’t know. I think everyone is feeling pretty good and excited about this season, especially with a few more playoff berths. That’s the point.
And while the Cubs-Brewers may not have the history of the Cubs-St. Rivalry to the Louis Cardinals, the Cardinals have never gone to great lengths to keep Cubs fans out of their ballpark. The Brewers did that in 2018 with a ticket presale for games at Miller Park that was limited to Wisconsin residents.
It’s too early to tell if the rivalry has been muted or if Saturday’s brouhaha will spark a spark to last the rest of the season. We may know better by the end of the month, when the Cubs travel to Milwaukee for their first three-game series at the stadium formerly known as Miller Park.
Counsell said he didn’t know what to expect.
“It’s always surprising how many Cubs fans are there,” he said. “But it’s a big city, a much bigger city than Milwaukee. And I understand it’s more convenient for a lot of fans. It’s the same travel time (as going to Wrigley Field from the suburbs north) and it’s easier to come and go.
“I get it. I think we have a good venue, and ease of access is one of the great things about Milwaukee to start with, so I get why people in Chicago go there.
And Cubs fans always love the Milwaukee Ballpark, which features a retractable dome and plenty of dining options.
“Yeah,” Counsell said. “And gambling is definitely a big deal.”
The more Cubs players are hit by pitches, the more important it could be.