Cubs

Cubs put the pressure back on Cardinals with Jake Arrieta up next

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Cubs put the pressure back on Cardinals with Jake Arrieta up next

ST. LOUIS – You should already know this by now, but these aren’t the same old Cubs. They might be too young and too inexperienced to win it all this year, but don’t pretend they’re too tight or too tense to wreck the St. Louis Cardinals’ playoff hopes.   

The tortured-history stuff and handle-the-pressure storylines are tired now, good space-fillers for the national media, but not really rooted in reality anymore.     

The Cubs escaped Busch Stadium with a split after Saturday’s 6-3 Game 2 victory, the end of a champagne-soaked road trip that saw them beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game and grab the momentum in this historic best-of-five division series.    

“We don’t plan on coming back here,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We can’t. We plan on playing a good game on Monday. Obviously, we’re very confident. But we want to do this now.”

[MORE: Cubs capitalize on Cardinals mistakes, even up NLDS]

Cardinal Nation had already been looking for the flaws beneath a 100-win team, and now the St. Louis lineup will have to deal with a modern-day Bob Gibson on Monday at Wrigley Field.

Jake Arrieta is ready and waiting for Game 3, and it’s been 11 weeks since the Cubs lost a “Snake” start, when it took Cole Hamels throwing a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Did all the pressure just shift back onto the Cardinals?

“It’s going to be a tough task,” Arrieta said. “But the same goes for us. This is kind of what we envisioned at the start of the season. And now we’re here.”

At times, the Cardinals looked like the Cubs during the dark days of the rebuild – rattled, indecisive, in a hurry. This is how the Cardinals beat teams inside Busch Stadium, playing small ball when necessary, pouncing on mistakes and staying cool under pressure. 

Jaime Garcia’s brain freeze led to five unearned runs in the second inning. The Game 2 starter fielded Kyle Hendricks’ sacrifice bunt, turned away from the play at home plate and threw wildly to first base, maybe giving Cubs fans Matt Garza flashbacks. 

Garcia ultimately left the game after two innings with what the Cardinals called a stomach virus, creating more questions about an iffy rotation that’s already been hit with injuries.

[RELATED: Cubs reaping the benefits of Manny Ramirez's influence on Jorge Soler

The Cubs are still a flawed, interesting team without much margin for error in the postseason. But they have the perfect manager in Joe Maddon, who always uses his pregame news conferences to send messages to his team, believing his words filter back into the clubhouse.   

“The fans should always worry,” Maddon said before Game 2, repeating back the end of the question. “It’s always the prerogative of a fan to worry. I absolutely believe in that. That’s what barrooms are for. That’s what little forums are for online in this 21st-century stuff. The fans should always worry. I’m always about fans worrying. Go ahead and worry as much as you’d like.

“From our perspective, we have to just go out and play the game like we always do. I’m here to tell you, man, I just can’t live that way. The line I’ve used is I don’t vibrate at that frequency. It has nothing to do with anything. It really doesn’t.” 

It’s not like the Cardinals – with those 11 World Series titles and so much muscle memory in the postseason – will concede anything against Arrieta or fold because the Cubs manager enjoys being The Most Interesting Man in the World in the interview room.

But the Cubs won’t get down if the Cardinals take an early lead in Game 3 or played scared if they do have to come back here for a do-or-die situation on Thursday at Busch Stadium.  

“The process is fearless,” Maddon said. “If you want to always live your life just based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot. And when you’re doing that, you’re really not living in a particular moment.

“I’m 60, I’ll be 80, and if by the time I’m 80 20 years from now I’ve just been worried about outcomes, I’m going to miss a lot. So you’ve really got to get involved in the process. And from our players’ perspective, that’s all I talk about. I’ve not even mentioned about winning one time to these guys during this whole time.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!] 

“It’s just about…if you take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours in a day take care of themselves. So for our fans back home, please go ahead and be worried. That’s OK. But understand that from our perspective in the clubhouse, we’re more worried about the process than the outcome.”

Think it will be loud in Wrigleyville on Monday? After sitting through five straight fifth-place seasons and paying some of the highest ticket prices in baseball, Cubs fans haven’t watched a home playoff game in seven years. 

The Cubs haven’t won a playoff game at Wrigley Field since the beginning of the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins. 

The Cubs have been playing at Clark and Addison since 1916 and have never clinched a playoff series at Wrigley Field.

“Well, there’s never been a team like this before,” Rizzo said. “We have something here – something special – so we just got to keep it going.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion. 

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.