CHICAGO • Before he could take the last step wearing a jersey he wore for the first time Sunday night, Cardinals outfielder Jason Heyward was greeted at the clubhouse door by Adam Wainwright. The team’s ace makes it a habit of welcoming his teammates back after a win, waiting for them atop the staircase that leads into the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field.
He tapped hands with Heyward and offered a quick nod.
“Way to get us started,” Wainwright said.
In a 3-0 opening night victory Sunday that was part showcase and part schoolhouse, Heyward set the pace for the Cardinals with three hits, a stolen base and an aggressive nature that confounded the host Cubs. In his first at-bat as a Cardinal, Heyward looped a hit to right, stretched for a double and scored when a Cub was slow to field Matt Holliday’s single. That quick lead was all Wainwright needed as he threw six shutout innings.
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In front of 35,055 fans, not one of whom sat in Wrigley’s unfinished bleachers, the Cardinals opened Major League Baseball’s season by offering the hyped-up Cubs lessons on sharp defense, smart at-bats and taking extra bases every time one is offered.
They did what the Cubs could not. They did what Heyward can.
If Heyward blossoms into the player the Cardinals believe he can be, he’ll personify many of the traits the Cardinals hope to have this season as a team.
“Just playing with an edge. That’s something he brings,” manager Mike Matheny said. “There was a little bite to them. He came out looking for something, looking to make an impact. He certainly did that. Aggressive on the bases. Aggressive at the plate.”
• CARDS CHAT: Derrick Goold Live at 1 p.m.
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Opening against the archrival Cubs for the 31st time in history but the first time since 1991 at Wrigley, the Cardinals won their sixth consecutive opener against the Cubs. The last time the Cardinals lost on opening day to the Cubs was in 1971, back when Matheny was six months old. Wainwright improved to 2-1 on opening day. He was the starter a year ago when the Cardinals won 1-0 at Cincinnati, giving the club its first back-to-back opening day shutouts since at least 1914.
Five years to the day that he homered in his first big-league at-bat, Heyward made his Cardinals debut with two doubles and a run scored. Off the Cardinals went. Holliday, hitting behind Heyward, had two RBI singles. Heyward stole third base as the lead runner in a double steal, and the Cardinals stole four bases total. Not since May 1, 2012 had the Cardinals had four steals in a single game, yet they spent all spring pressing on the bases and stressing that this was the summer they run.
“Looks like we’re stealing,” Holliday said.
Heyward was often described as a reason they could.
Acquired this past November in a four-player deal with the dismantling Atlanta Braves and affixed this spring to the No. 2 spot in the order, Heyward is entering a defining year in his career. The 25-year-old right fielder will be a free agent at the end of the season and the Cardinals have openly said they hope to re-sign him. But not before they rely on him to boost an offense that flagged last summer. Heyward became the first outfielder to debut for the Cardinals with three hits since the last outfielder they traded for to spur the offense, teammate Holliday.
Heyward was one of five lefties in the lineup Sunday night against Cubs lefty Jon Lester. Heyward brought the best numbers into the game with four-for-nine success previously against Lester (0-1). He went three-for-three before Lester left the game after 4 1/3 innings, and the five lefthanded hitters combined to go six-for-10 against the Cubs’ $155-million ace. In the first inning, Heyward lifted a base hit to right and didn’t slow around first. He scored from second when Jorge Soler couldn’t pick Holliday’s line-drive base hit cleanly. In the third inning, Heyward flipped the ball into the outfield, and when he saw Chris Coghlan’s route he pressed for two.
It was exactly that kind of baserunning Matheny urged the team to have all spring.
“If you make mistakes you want to be aggressive, you don’t want to be passive,” Heyward said. “I’m always going to look to go two out of the box. I look to run until they stop me.”
Lester and the Cubs allowed for that. With Wrigley still undergoing renovations, bathrooms were scarce and lines long. Some fans claimed to have waited two innings. All they missed was the Cardinals taking extra bases. Like their ballpark and their roster, the Cubs are improving, but their game remains under construction. They committed two errors, both on steals of second that then put a Cardinals runner at third. Each of the Cardinals’ three runs involved a runner taking an extra base as the Cubs’ defense sagged, be it going from first to third, second to home, or just an attempted steal.
After Wainwright failed on two bunt attempts, he hung in an at-bat long enough to get four more pitches from Lester. The lefty got his fifth out of the game on his 39th pitch.
His 40th was rapped by Matt Carpenter for an RBI single.
Carpenter scored the Cardinals’ third run after taking a lead from against Lester, who ESPN discovered had not attempted a pickoff throw since April 2013, and running for third on a single.
“The offense just came and they kept coming,” Matheny said. “That’s the offense we hope to have.”
• BOX SCORE: Cardinals 3, Cubs 0
The Cubs had their chances, but each time Wainwright snipped their wires before detonation. The Cubs had three leadoff doubles in the first four innings, and not one of those batters scored. Of the first 19 batters Wainwright faced, 11 hit with a runner in scoring position. Not one delivered a hit. Wainwright had five strikeouts by the end of the third inning, and each came with a runner in scoring position. He got slugger Anthony Rizzo to take a backdoor cutter for a called strike three in the first inning. Rizzo swung over a curveball for a strikeout to end the third inning.
Neither Wainwright nor Lester had a traditional spring. Wainwright was slowed by an abdominal strain that limited him to three starts. Lester had a “dead arm” phase that forced him to make his final two spring starts in the minors.
Wainwright had the pitches to escape.
Lester didn’t have the help.
Heyward and the Cardinals ran away with the opener.
“That was a pretty flawless game on our side,” Carpenter said. “This was a great example of us being aggressive, something we’ve been talking about needing to be all this season. We put pressure on the defense. It puts pressure on the pitcher. That was a pretty flawless game on our side. We talked about let’s not change what we did all spring. Let’s let that be our identity.”