Mark Prior set the tone in the third inning of Wednesday's Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field, knocking outfielder So Taguchi on his back with a fastball that sailed toward his head.
It was almost as if Prior wanted to send a simple message: "Remember me?"
But St. Louis knocked Prior out of the game one inning later, cruising to a 12-4 victory in a wild affair that seemed to pick up where last year's heated battles at Wrigley left off.
"You have to ask them that," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "I hope not."
The Cardinals have won two of the first three games of the series, which concludes Thursday with Jason Marquis facing Carlos Zambrano.
Both teams were issued warnings Wednesday after a bench-clearing incident in the bottom of the fifth when Matt Morris decked Derrek Lee in apparent retaliation for previous knockdowns by Prior and rookie reliever Jon Leicester.
"I don't mind him choosing me," Lee said. "Just don't go above the shoulders. Don't throw at my head."
The brouhaha began when Prior sent Taguchi sprawling with an 0-2 fastball up and in during the third. In the fifth, reliever Leicester, making his major-league debut, brushed back Jim Edmonds with another 0-2 pitch before Edmonds responded with a mammoth, solo homer onto Sheffield Avenue two pitches later.
Morris brushed back Lee once in the fifth, then threw a fastball headed straight toward Lee's head, forcing Lee to bail out at the last second. Lee arose angrily with his bat in his hand and pointed first at Morris and then at manager Tony La Russa in the Cardinals' dugout.
"I think the call came from the manager," Lee said. "I don't have a problem with him protecting his players just as long as you stay below the shoulders."
Both benches cleared, although no punches were thrown.
"I understand there are emotions in this rivalry," Prior said. "It's one thing to send a message. It's another thing to throw at a guy's head.
I think we all understand there's a way to do things and there's a way not to do things."
Plate umpire Ed Rapuano promptly issued warnings to both teams, and there were no more incidents. La Russa said Lee "overreacted" to Morris' pitch, but crew chief Rick Reed said the "second one [to Lee] was a message."
La Russa contended neither Prior nor Morris had his usual control, and that this was a cause for the inside pitches that sent batters sprawling.
"Both are in the upper echelon in the major leagues but they did not have real sharp command," La Russa said. "They were forced to work on every hitter. They pitched in and out. It was a tough game."
Morris called his inside pitch to Lee "a mistake. One that got away."
It was the third bench-clearing incident involving the Cubs in the last two weeks. Cubs pitchers precipitated all three, either hitting or knocking down opposing hitters. Prior said "anybody who understands baseball" would know he wasn't trying to knock down Taguchi intentionally.
"I broke his bat his first [at-bat], and he swung at an 0-1 pitch that was over his head, so I was trying to go upstairs and got it in a little too much," he said. "There was no intent on my part, but basically they took it that way."
Baker defended Prior and Leicester for throwing high and inside to the Cardinals hitters.
"Young Leicester, in his first game, he's going to try and knock somebody down?" Baker said. "He wasn't trying to knock down Edmonds. The ball really wasn't even that close. And then their guy hits the ground, and everybody thinks you're throwing at him.
"Look back on the replays. [Edmonds] hits the ground once a day just to get the uniform dirty."
Prior (0-1) struggled in his second start since returning from his Achilles injury. He threw 83 pitches and walked five hitters in only 32/3 innings, allowing five runs. Baker removed Prior after watching him walk three men in the fourth before serving up a grand slam to Edgar Renteria on a 2-0 pitch.
The Cubs answered back with Corey Patterson's two-run homer in a three-run fourth and trailed 6-4 after five on Ramon Martinez's RBI double off Morris.
St. Louis broke it open with a six-run eighth off Kyle Farnsworth and Mike Remlinger, sending much of the crowd of 38,693 to the exits.
Cardinals 12, Cubs 4