The rivalry between the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers has heated up over the past seven years, due to the cities’ proximity, the fact that both teams were usually contenders for the National League Central title and the presence of Wilson Contreras.
But the Brewers are well-favoured to win the division this season, while the Cubs have transitioned since last summer’s sell-off.
There were thousands of empty seats at Wrigley Field on Thursday for Opening Day and even more so on Saturday afternoon, which saw the Cubs cruise to a 9-0 victory in a chippy game, with Keegan Thompson in the eighth after a bench-turned-off. Clearing event was involved. Brewers outfielder Andrew McCutchen hit.
Despite an announced rush of 30,369, only the bleachers were mostly full in a 44-degree afternoon, with a strong wind blowing from the right area.
Is this just an early season blip because of the cold spring weather? Consequences of lockdown?
Or has the vibe changed at Wrigley as the Cubs took off their biggest stars and went into semi-rebuilding mode?
“I didn’t mind on Opening Day, really,” Brewers manager Craig Consell said before Saturday’s game. “I think it’s the same vibe. At the start of the season every team should be hopeful.
The Cubs once again gave hope to the notion that they are not content to become wannabes in 2022, starting the season 2-0 for the first time since 2016.
Justin Steele bowled five shutout innings, rookie Seiya Suzuki scored three and the Cubs took advantage of the wildness of the Brewers pitchers, who combined to hit three batsmen for seven walks and allowed one run on a wild pitch.
Naturally, one of the Cubs dropped was Contreras, who has been hit 15 times by Brewers pitchers in the first two games of the series and in his career. Contreras took a few deep breaths after a back injury and calmly headed first but was clearly annoyed at the frequency of wayward pitches.
Ian Happ was hit in the left knee by a Trevor Gott slider in the seventh, forcing him to leave the game. Thompson threw McCutcheon inside in the next inning, backed him up, then dunked him, prompting McCutcheon to bark at the pitcher below the baseline as Contreras was running behind and yucking at him.
When they met on the field there was nothing but a tight conversation between the teams. Thompson was kicked out for throwing it at McCutchen.
The Cubs scored 4-15 against the Brewers last season but will look to pull off a three-game sweep on Sunday. Marcus Strowman, their first major free-agent signing of the offseason, is about to make his Cubs debut.
Woodruff, who finished fifth in National League Cy Young voting last season, put the Brewers at the bottom of the first without allowing a hit to only six batters in a quick hole. He started with a walk, a hit batter and two more walks, forcing home a run on a free pass to Hap.
Frank Schwindell’s RBI groundout and Suzuki’s sacrificial fly – his first major-league run at bat – gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead. He batted in fifth to Woodruff and reliever Jose Ureena, Suzuki on Urena’s base-loaded walk and scored two of his three runs on a wooded pitch, turning the game into laughter.
The Cubs aren’t anyone’s choice to win the division, but no player is viewing this as a season to rebuild.
“I don’t think people feel that way at all,” Schwindell said. “Everyone is hungry. Everyone has had a good spring. We’ve got some big joints with Suzuki, Strowman, some relievers.
“I don’t know. I think everyone is feeling great and excited about this season, especially with a few more playoff spots. That’s the goal.”
And while Cubs-brewers may not have a history of Cubs-St. Louis Cardinals Rivalry, the Cardinals never went to any great lengths to keep Cubs fans out of their ballpark. The Brewers famously did this in 2018 with a pre-sale of tickets for games at Miller Park that was limited to Wisconsin residents.
It is too early to say whether the rivalry has turned muted or if Saturday’s ruckus will ignite a spark to last for 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.
Counsel 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 think it’s more convenient for a lot of fans. It’s the same travel time (as going from the north suburbs to Wrigley Field) and it Easy in and out.
“I get it. I think we have a great location, and the ease of access is one of the most important parts about Milwaukee, so I understand why Chicagoans access it.”
And Cubs fans still love Milwaukee’s ballpark, which has a retractable dome and plenty of great dining options.
“Yes,” said the counsel. “And sport is definitely a big deal.”
The more Cubs players hit the pitches, the bigger the deal can be.