Cubs look forward to facing off against Dexter Fowler in rivalry with Cardinals


Dexter Fowler could troll the Cubs by bunting a ball right back to Jon Lester, or backpedaling toward second base after hitting a home run, the way he began last year's World Series Game 7. The St. Louis Cardinals wanted a presence to help change their team dynamics, handing him a five-year, $82.5 million contract for his athleticism, switch-hitting leadoff skills and knack for getting on base.  

But it's hard to picture Fowler being the villain on Sunday night at Busch Stadium, where the Cubs and Cardinals will renew a rivalry that began in 1892 and now has a completely different feel. Anthony Rizzo already delivered the message to Fowler in January during Kris Bryant's wedding in Las Vegas.

"I said: ‘It's 2017, so I can't talk to you anymore,'" Rizzo said. "But it's just a friendly rivalry. I want to see him do well all the time. He's a good friend. He's a world champion for the Chicago Cubs forever, no matter where he's playing or what jersey he's wearing."

It will still be weird at first, seeing Fowler in Cardinal red while the Cubs start the season as defending World Series champs for the first time since 1909.

"Yeah, how ‘bout that?" said Lester, the Opening Night starter. "Get that out of the way. That will be good for him. That will be good for us. You get the hellos and the goodbyes out of the way.

"And then he'll have his first Wrigley reception, which I hope is always positive. And then once we do that we're – I don't like to use the word ‘enemies' – but you're an opponent now and I'm trying to get you out and he's trying to get hits off us. 

"Have to put the friendship aside and play baseball. But afterwards we'll shake hands and grab a drink or something."          
The idea of Fowler as an energizing clubhouse transformer – with revolutionary ideas like playing music while stretching and taking batting practice in spring training – has been overstated around the Cardinals. If anything, Fowler blended in with his old teammates and brought a calm detachment to the game.

Even more than that leadoff homer off Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber, the at-bat that summed up Fowler's true value to the Cubs might have been a nine-pitch battle against Jeff Samardzija in the first round of the playoffs, coming back from an 0-2 count, fouling off three pitches and lining a double into right field. 

Fowler would score moments later at Wrigley Field, putting the pressure on the San Francisco Giants and setting the tone as the Cubs took a commanding 2-0 lead over the San Francisco Giants in that best-of-five matchup against a franchise that had won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

"It will be really cool to see him again," Kyle Schwarber said. "He's still part of the family. We miss him. We're happy for him. Obviously, we got to play against him, so we like him until it's time to come out onto the field and compete."

Joe Maddon's Geek Department projections have the Cubs generating more offense with Schwarber hitting leadoff than the 808 runs they scored last year, which led every National League team except for the Colorado Rockies. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should also be a defensive upgrade over Fowler. 

Schwarber just laughed when asked what sort of response the Cubs should expect in St. Louis: "I think we're going to get a standing ovation." 

Fowler certainly made an imprint after getting traded from the Houston Astros – for infielder Luis Valbuena and pitcher Dan Straily – in an under-the-radar January 2015 deal that helped accelerate the Wrigleyville rebuild. Fowler heating up in the second half of that season helped the Cubs catch fire and win 97 games and two playoff rounds. 

After the qualifying offer had a chilling effect – and the Baltimore Orioles slow-played negotiations over a three-year contract reported to be a done deal in the range of $35 million – the Cubs swooped in to give Fowler a soft landing spot and guaranteed $13 million in a spring-training surprise.      

"It's amazing for Dexter," Rizzo said. "Obviously, last year, with him going through the free-agent process, it didn't work out in his favor. And this year, he goes through it again and gets what he deserves.

"But I told him: I hope he gets five hits against us every time and we beat him every time. That's the best outcome."

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