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ESPN's Rick Sutcliffe calls Cardinals-Cubs MLB's top rivalry

ESPN will be broadcasting tonight's game and Rick Sutcliffe is on the broadcasting crew. He calls Cardinals-Cubs the best rivalry in the game and previews tonight's game.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight's game between the Cardinals and the Cubs will air on ESPN (6 pm CT) with Jon Sciambi calling the game and Rick Sutcliffe, Raul Ibanez and Doug Glanville providing analysis. Rick Sutcliffe is no stranger to the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry having played with the Cubs from 1984 through 1991 as well as spending time on the Cardinals in the 1994 season. He took some time to answer questions on the rivalry, the state of the Cardinals, and previews tonight's game.

VEB: You were on a couple pretty good Cubs' teams in your career, but they never synced up in years where the Cardinals were good as well. Is this as good as the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry has been in your time in baseball?

RS: You look back with the exception of last year, it wasn't much of a rivalry for a while because the Cubs weren't very good. The Cardinals have dominated the division over the last several years and it's exciting to me now that the Cubs have caught up.

I think it's the best rivalry in baseball. I know some people argue the Yankees-Red Sox and some others, but I think it's the best because of the way the fans react to the game. They are just as intense as anybody, but when the game is over with they aren't afraid to congratulate each other regardless of what team won. It's a great atmosphere to bring a family to. I had a child growing up in the mid to late 80s and having a grandson now, it's a place you want to take your wife and kids out for an evening or afternoon.

VEB: A few weeks ago, some people were declaring the NL Central race finished.The Cubs fell back a little bit. Do the Cardinals or Pirates still have a decent chance of getting back in it?

RS: Absolutely. What the Cubs did the first 40 games was historic and its honestly unrealistic that things would continue like that. On paper they are as good as any team in baseball, but it isn't like they are that much better than St. Louis or Pittsburgh. When you think about both the Pirates and the Cardinals, they have gained a lot of experience, had a lot of success, and they still have terrific ballclubs. Most people feel like the NL Central is the best division. It's a three-headed monster and like they did last year, these teams have a great shot at getting back to the postseason.

VEB: Do the Cubs have have any real weaknesses?

RS: No, they don't. What Theo Epstein did in Boston, he has done in Chicago. He took over in Boston in '02 and they won the World Series in '04. The number one thing he did was strengthen that farm system. Think about the impact players that came up every year: whether it was Pedroia or Ellsbury or Buchholz or Youkilis.

Theo epstein has put the Cubs in the same position. When you ask about a weakness, the one thing I thought of was Kyle Schwarber. This is the best young hitter I've seen come along with the Cubs since I was back with them in ‘84. This guy is special. To lose him for the whole year would be devastating for a lot of teams. It's not like the Cubs are going to be as good, but the one thing Theo has always looked at: you have to be average or better at every position, and the cubs are still going to be average or better in left field

VEB: Switching gears to the Cardinals, Michael Wacha, like a lot of pitchers, when he leaves the ball up it tends to get hit hard and when he gets the ball down he has a lot more effectiveness. What have you seen this year and can he be more consistent?

RS: I've seen him be healthy, which is a huge key. I don't see any problem with him getting it turned around. You're right, he's just been pitching way more up in the zone than what he's done in the past. Even though he's just 24 years old, he's been in the league for a while.

People have realized his changeup is one of the best in the game, and the need to stay away from that. When you get an un-located fastball, make sure you don't miss. This year he's had more of those un-located fastball, particularly in the last few starts, than he has in a long time. When you are talking about a guy that age, there' s always going to peaks and valleys and ups and downs. When you look at last year, he got on a couple good runs and there's no reason to believe he's not going to do that again.

One thing I'll say in his defense, that infield defense to me is the Cardinals number one concern. Jhonny Peralta will help that a bit, but the guys that they have there need to get better for them to get back to the postseason.

VEB: As a pitcher, when you know the defense isn't as strong as you would like it, how do you either change your gameplan or not let it affect how you pitch?

RS: You hope you don't change your gameplan. If you get a ground ball to short and he throws it away your goal should be to get another ground ball to short. That's the key: to keep the ball out of the air. It's only human nature to try and do more and several guys in the rotation have.

One guy that comes to mind is Carlos Martinez. I think Martinez has been trying to strike out too many people, maybe putting more effort into it than the first four or five starts this season. There's no doubt that once it happens, "Okay what do I have to do to keep this from happening again?", and first thought is to don't let them put it in play and that's the wrong thing for any starting pitcher to be thinking about.

VEB: So far the starting pitching and defense has been inconsistent, but the offense has been a surprise. How do you expect that to even out over the course the season?

RS: I don't think there will be any problems all year long offensively. Last night, the first five guys were 1-17 with Holliday and Carpenter there--the guys you expect to carry them--yet the Cardinals still won the game with guys like Yadi and Grichuk, and then Adams coming off the bench.

That's the exciting thing. John Mozeliak has done a lot of terrific things for the organization. In his opinion, guys like Piscotty and Grichuk were ready to perform at the big league level and provide an impact. You saw it last night with the terrific bench they put together. They've already hit nine home runs as pinch hitters.

You see these guys coming through with big hits like Grichuk did last night against what has been the best team in baseball. That's a great sign for a young player. When they talk about what comes first, confidence or success, you have to succcess before you start feeling good about yourself.

VEB: What are you looking for tonight?

RS: The interesting thing for me is going to be Jason Hammel. Historically, he's been a guy that has gotten off to a good start and run into some problems. He did a lot of things over the winter to try and correct that: a lot of core work, a lot of leg work that he has seen Jake Arrieta do to take his game to the next level.

I look for him to bounce back after giving up a couple home runs. For him to do that he has to be down in the zone. He's got to keep the ball out of the air. For me, he is the key tonight. You expect this to be a pitcher's duel when you think about the two guys on the mound. I look for more of the same tonight with what we saw yesterday.

VEB: Arrieta and Martinez, tomorrow, too.

RS: Arrieta is a different breed. If you aren't going to throw a no-hitter like Cole Hamels did last year you probably aren't going to beat him right now. You've got to match zeroes with him. If you give up a three-spot in the first inning, you can count on seeing an L by your name the next day.

Thanks to Rick Sutcliffe for the time. Tonight's game can be seen on ESPN at 6pm with Padres-Giants and Baseball Tonight to follow.