Cubs begin title defense against Fowler, Cardinals
Dexter Fowler is going to have a bunch of old friends on hand for his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The rivalry between the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs begins a new chapter in prime time on Sunday. The Cubs are the new kings of baseball, coming off their first World Series title since 1908, while the Cardinals are trying to return to the playoffs after missing the party last year.
That would be more than enough for an intriguing opening day, but then there's Fowler playing his first game in St. Louis since he signed an $82.5 million, five-year contract from the Cardinals during free agency. First up is his old team, the same one he helped to a historic championship in November.
''Playing against the Cubs is gonna be bittersweet. Obviously the last game I played was with them,'' Fowler said. ''(But) I'm excited to be in St. Louis and get started on this side.''
Fowler spent two successful years in Chicago, drawing praise for his presence in the clubhouse and his solid all-around play on the field. The Cubs won 97 games and made it to the NL Championship Series in his first year with the team, and then won the franchise's third World Series championship in November.
It looked as if Fowler was on his way out of Chicago before last season, but he re-signed with the Cubs in a surprise move during spring training. The center fielder and leadoff hitter then batted .276 with 13 homers and a .393 on-base percentage in 125 games, making the All-Star team for the first time.
As far as the Game 1 reunion is concerned, don't expect any frosty glares or awkward moments - unless someone is trying to have a little fun with the other side. Fowler joked about tackling Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo if he gets on first base, and Chicago manager Joe Maddon continued to speak glowingly of Fowler's time with the team - even while he seemed to be preparing himself for the sight of Fowler in a Cardinals uniform standing right across from him during pregame introductions.
''I'm like the first one down and he'll be hitting leadoff for the Cardinals so he's going to be right there,'' Maddon said. ''And I've thought about that. Because he and I were really - we got along really, really well and he's going to be very, very important for them. So it will be interesting to see that and feel that.
''But I'm happy for him. I'm happy. He took a chance last year coming back to us on the contract that he did. He nailed it and he deserves everything that he's getting right now.''
Albert Almora Jr., the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, and veteran Jon Jay take over for Fowler in center, one of a precious few questions for the loaded Cubs heading into their title defense. Kyle Schwarber gets the first crack at replacing Fowler in leadoff slot, giving the Cubs an imposing top third of the lineup along with NL MVP Kris Bryant and Rizzo. Jon Lester, who gets the ball on opening day, leads a deep pitching staff.
Maddon also thinks the team will handle the mantle of defending champions just fine.
''I think our guys are ready to turn the page and move on to this year,'' he said. ''We'd like to do it again. And then also not forgetting the previous year, NLCS was pretty solid also. So that's two years in a row we traveled deeply into the postseason. I don't think we think that way for the best way to describe it. I'd be surprised if - that's not saying we're going to kill it or somebody's not going to beat us, that's not my point. I just think we're going to go into it with the right mindset.''
The Cardinals went 86-76 last season, finishing a whopping 17 1/2 games behind the Cubs and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. They were trying to complete one last piece of business before Carlos Martinez throws the first pitch of their 2017 season, working on an extension with Yadier Molina.
The seven-time All-Star catcher, who hit .307 last season, has said he wants a contract finalized before the opener against the Cubs, and each side sounded optimistic in the last couple days.
''In St. Louis, it's like a holiday come opening day,'' Cardinals slugger Matt Adam said. ''The whole city shuts down. We got the parade with the Clydesdales and riding in the back of the trucks. You pull out of the tunnel and you see a sea of red out there. We're ready to get things rolling.''
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.
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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap