By Bruce Levine–
ST. LOUIS (CBS) — The Cubs’ title defense began Sunday night with a former lead-off man and a new lead-off man of theirs at center stage.
After spending the past two years in Chicago, Dexter Fowler was 1-of-4 with a walk and scored a run to help the Cardinals to a 4-3 win against the Cubs in the teams’ season opener at Busch Stadium.
“It was awkward,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Fowler being in a Cubs uniform. “It was different, but we are really happy for him.”
Fowler signing a lucrative five-year deal with St. Louis this past offseason opened up the door for Chicago to plug in left fielder Kyle Schwarber at lead-off. The unconventional choice to put a slugger instead of a speedster at the top of the order came after Maddon tasked the analytics department to come up with the best options to create Cubs’ run production.
In his debut at lead-off, Schwarber did well, going 2-of-3 with a double and a hit by pitch.
“This is a cool spot,” Schwarber said pregame. “Visualization is a big thing for me. If you put yourself in situations before they happen and you put yourself there mentally, you can put yourself in a good place at the plate.”
Added Maddon: “Kyle had great at-bats for us.”
The Cubs’ loss actually marked the first time since April 10, 2015 that the team has been under .500, as Chicago had a hot start to 2016. On Sunday, the Cubs’ bats were quieted by Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez’s 7 1/3 shutout innings before Chicago rallied to tie it a 3-3 in the ninth inning on a three-run homer by Willson Contreras.
The Cubs believe their mantra of never quitting will serve them well, and they kept an even-keeled, positive vibe after losing on Randal Grichuk’s walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.
“It was fun to out there again battling,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “Up ,down or whatever, that is what we do. We do a good job of it as a team. We get down the line and hustle. We could have taken off with down three runs, but this group doesn’t do that.”
Everyone involved knew the dynamic with Fowler had changed when he made a hard slide into Cubs shortstop Addison Russell. There’s great respect, but there’s also a game to be won.
Fowler and Heyward grew up playing against each other in Georgia, so being foes Sunday wasn’t all that jarring.
“I played against him before on our hometown team,” Heyward said. “Yes, we did get to play with each other once. It was the best thing in the world .It is cool — we will see each other a lot. That is all the guys have been talking about. We will have fun competing against him whenever we can.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.