Cardinals pitcher paid tribute to Yordano Ventura in Sunday’s opener

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Carlos Martinez started his season by remembering a pair of players from his native Dominican Republic who have died in car accidents.

Before Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Cubs, Martinez etched the numbers 18 (for former Cardinal Oscar Taveras) and 30 (for former Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura) on the back of the pitcher’s mound.

“There were a lot of emotions going through me,” Martinez told’s Jenifer Langosch after the game via a translator. “It was an honor to have been like a brother to both of them. And for me, every time I go on the mound, I dedicate every single game to them because they taught me to live my life to the fullest.”

Ventura died in January, while Taveras passed away during the 2014 World Series.

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Opening Day win fuels Cardinals' aim to close gap on Cubs

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate their impressive place in baseball history every Opening Day with Hall of Famers riding in wearing red jackets and Clydesdales stomping about and all sorts of fun stuff. But when the Chicago Cubs are in town, they seem to dwell on it longer.

So, when they mentioned their 11 World Series championships dozens of times during the pregame ceremony Sunday night, it might have been as much about who was in the visiting dugout as it was about the 125th anniversary of the day they joined the National League. It was, at the very least, convenient timing, with Chicago fans and the rest of the nation watching on ESPN.

Most prognosticators don’t seem to think the Cardinals are the team to pose the biggest threat to the Cubs’ defense of their title this season; they favor the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets or Washington Nationals. The Cardinals aren’t listening to prognosticators. That much seemed evident after their exciting 4-3 win over the Cubs.

Shortly after eviscerating the Cubs' lineup with a fastball that brushed triple digits and a changeup that bordered on sadistic, Carlos Martinez didn’t mince words. I asked him if he thought the Cardinals had closed the gap on the champs.

“I think we could be better this year,” he said in Spanish. “Last year was last year. I give them the credit they deserve. They are a good team, but I believe in my team and I think things are going to be different this year.”

All winter, the Cardinals thought about ways they could close that gap on Chicago, which won 17 games more than them during the regular season and rolled their way to their first World Series win in 108 years. For the first time since the Cardinals’ first title in 1926, they are the team with the longest championship drought in this rivalry. That is a stunning realization for their fans to live through, the wrong side of history.

Yet the Cardinals went a respectable 9-10 against the Cubs last season and, at the very least, Sunday night hinted that when these teams play, the tension could be massive again in 2017. Martinez was absolutely electric, but one Matt Carpenter misplay opened the door for Willson Contreras' three-run home run to tie it before Randal Grichuk won it with a walk-off single that reached the wall in left-center.

By now, most people know how much young talent the Cubs have stockpiled. It shows every time Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber swings or Javier Baez or Addison Russell gloves a baseball or Contreras tries to back-pick an unwary runner. Those people may not be aware of how good Martinez has become or how much bat speed Grichuk has or how savvy Aledmys Diaz and Stephen Piscotty are on a baseball field.

If the Cardinals’ young players make the strides this season that the Cubs’ young players made last season, this rivalry could tilt quite quickly. Grichuk started 2016 in a massive slump and wound up making an embarrassing return trip to Triple-A Memphis.

“It’s my first Opening Day game that I did something, really,” Grichuk said. “Last year I struggled, and I didn’t get to start the year before.”

Martinez was excited to get his first Opening Day start, which he earned by leading the Cardinals in wins, ERA, strikeouts and just plain ability in 2016. He admits he was intent on showing the rest of the world he’s better than they might think. The Cardinals are convinced he’ll be a candidate in the Cy Young discussion very soon, if not this season. He made that confidence look well-placed on Sunday, striking out 10 and walking none.

“It was not just an opportunity to show the Cardinals I’m the man for the job, but to showcase my talent for the world,” he said.

Dexter Fowler helped the Cubs break their famous drought last season, and he scored the first run in the rivalry in 2017, this time swiping his left hand across the plate to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the third inning. Before the game, he was asked whether his new team had closed the gap on his old one.

“It’s going to be a good one, but I always like to win,” Fowler said. “So, hopefully, I’ll be on top. Again. I feel like we’re pretty even over here.”

It’s in part because of Fowler’s presence, but also because of how things went in this division last year, that the Cardinals felt a different vibe all spring.

“I’d say it’s a little bit of an edge, a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. The first day we walked into spring I sensed it,” manager Mike Matheny said.

Everywhere the Cubs go this season, teams are going to give them their best efforts. They certainly should expect nothing less from the Cardinals, who are used to being the alpha males in the National League Central and to pummeling the Cubs throughout the generations. One game isn’t going to sway the course of what could be a changing of the guard. It will be about the usual things -- health, luck, the shape of players’ growth curves -- but the Cardinals are intent on showing last year wasn’t the start of things to come.

So, yeah, consider this opening night an early statement.

Source: Cardinals complete contract extension with Piscotty

ST. LOUIS • A day after assuring that Yadier Molina will likely finish his career with the Cardinals, the club finalized a long-term extension with outfielder Stephen Piscotty that gives the young player security beyond his years.

The Cardinals will announce a long-term extension with Piscotty on Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m. St. Louis time. A source confirmed the deal to The Post-Dispatch.

Terms of the deal were not yet clear.

Piscotty has only one year of service time, so an extension is preemptive, and would likely include all of his remaining control years – through 2022. The Cardinals prefer to make such deals with players when they also include some free agent years. If so, that would give Piscotty the longest contract on the team.

Piscotty, 26, hit .273 with an .800 OPS last season, his first full season in the majors. Set loose as the team's everyday right fielder when Jason Heyward left as a free agent, Piscotty emerged as one of the team's middle-order hitters in 2016. He adjusted his swing the season before to unlock more power in it, and that led to a career-high 22 home runs in 153 games last season.

He had a difficult spring as he continued to tune his swing, though singled in his first at-bat Sunday night and could eventually return to the team's cleanup role.

On Sunday, hours before the Cardinals' 4-2 win against the Cubs in both team's season opener, the team completed a three-year, $60-million contract with Molina, their Gold Glove catcher. Piscotty's will be the third extension since the end of last season, following Carlos Martinez's and Molina's.

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