It's fitting that the first meeting of the season between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals will see both John Lackey and Jason Heyward return to Busch Stadium.
Those players were on the opposite side a season ago when the upstart Cubs knocked off the Cardinals in an NL division series and could be greeted rudely by the St. Louis faithful in Monday night's three-game series opener.
St. Louis (7-5) has been to five straight postseasons and won 100 games last year for the first time in 10 years before its run of capturing four straight division series ended with a four-game loss to Chicago, which captured the league's second wild card.
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The Cubs (9-3) then strengthened themselves in the offseason, most notably from a St. Louis perspective by the free agent signings of Lackey (2-0, 5.68 ERA) and Heyward.
The Heyward signing seemed to signal a changing of the guard in the NL Central, as Chicago not only splashed out a $184 million, eight-year contract for him but also held his introductory press conference at the swanky Spiaggia Restaurant in the city's famed Magnificent Mile. The outfielder indicated that the Cubs' youth was a major reason why he signed with them.
''I felt like if I were to look up in three years and see a completely different team, that would kind of be different for me,'' Heyward said. ''Chicago really offers an opportunity to come and really be introduced to the culture by a young group of guys, grow up with them and watch them grow up and still watch myself grow up and have some fun with familiar faces for a long time.''
Heyward, though, is off to a slow start for Chicago, going 9 for 44.
The Cardinals took exception to the notion they are an older club. There's also a culture clash between the no-nonsense, buttoned-down culture in St. Louis compared to the fun-loving atmosphere with the lovable Cubs, who held disco parties after games last year with the blessing of colorful manager Joe Maddon.
Unsurprisingly, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny tried to downplay Monday's opener between baseball's top offenses. The Cardinals are averaging 7.1 runs and the Cubs 5.9.
"I will say this, I know there's going to be some electricity in the stadium, because our fans are into this thing too and that does influence, you can't help it, it influences the atmosphere on the field so we're excited about that but when it comes down to it, if our guys are doing anything different, or if they're playing any harder, we've got some conversations that we've got to have," Matheny said.
Lackey went 16-13 with a 3.10 ERA in 43 starts with the Cardinals since being acquired from Boston on July 31, 2014, before he signed a two-year deal with Chicago. He'll take the mound at Busch for the first time since going 7 1-3 innings in a 4-0 victory over the Cubs in the Division Series opener in rosier times for the Cardinals.
The right-hander has never faced St. Louis in the regular season. The available Cardinals he has faced the most are Brandon Moss (4 for 8) and Matt Holliday (0 for 7).
He gave up two runs in 6 2-3 innings in Wednesday's 9-2 rout of Cincinnati.
Lackey will be opposed by Mike Leake (0-1, 6.97), who has yielded four runs in each of his first two starts after he lasted six innings in Wednesday's no-decision in a 6-4 loss to Milwaukee.
Leake went 0-1 with a 3.67 ERA in four 2015 starts versus the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo is 10 for 30 with two homers against him.
The Cubs, who dropped two of three to Colorado over the weekend, sport an NL-best 5-1 road mark. The Cardinals have taken two of three in a pair of series to begin this nine-game homestand, not starting Yadier Molina for some rest in Sunday's 4-3 win over the Reds.
Molina is expected to return to the lineup for Monday's much-anticipated contest.
"We do need the build-up for the good of the game and the excitement, it's been a long-time rivalry," Matheny said. "But now the ability to have all the excitement about them, I think there's some excitement about us, around here at least. So now we get to go out and stop all the talking and play the game."