Cubs

Cubs survived what went wrong against Giants, showing how they can keep advancing through October

Cubs survived what went wrong against Giants, showing how they can keep advancing through October

SAN FRANCISCO – The Cubs are built as a team of checks and balances, blunt veterans who didn’t come here for a haircut and young players acting like they’ve been here forever. A thumping American League-style lineup has the mix-and-match parts to play the National League game. An elite defensive unit works in concert with the pitching staff. The Geek Department supports Joe Maddon’s coaching staff. An Ivy League front office nailed so many decisions through scouting and intuition.

Still, the best team in baseball, a 103-win machine during the regular season, encountered the broad message Maddon sent during his pre-playoffs meeting: Things will go wrong.

Meaning the Cubs will be defined by how they react to bad calls, bad bounces, bad performances, nonstop scrutiny and hostile environments. This team didn’t sulk or panic during the NL Division Series, responding to the awesome challenge presented by the San Francisco Giants, showing how to keep surviving and advancing through October.

“You’re going to have to scramble for some wins if you’re going to win in the postseason,” general manager Jed Hoyer said late Tuesday night amid the celebration on the West Coast, standing soaking wet in the middle of AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse.

“Things aren’t going to go right. Obviously, Game 1 went perfect. You get eight innings out of Jon (Lester). That’s great. That doesn’t happen all the time. You got to be able to scramble in the postseason.”

The Cubs needed only four games to eliminate a Giant franchise that has the confidence and muscle memory from winning World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs postseason gear right here]

Even with two extremely reliable starting pitchers – Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey – not lasting beyond the fourth inning in Games 2 and 4. And superstar closer Aroldis Chapman blowing the six-out save in what became a 13-inning loss in Game 3.

Together, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant committed five errors. Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell combined went 4-for-45 (.089 average) with one extra-base hit. Up until that ninth-inning rally in Game 4, pitchers Hendricks, Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta drove in almost half of the team’s runs during the NLDS.

“It shows that it doesn’t have to be the MVP candidate in Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo to win us the ballgame every night,” Arrieta said. “Guys step up, like Javy (Baez). It’s a timely hit from Kyle, a huge home run from Travis. Everybody contributes.

“To be able to have that contribution from up and down the order versus just a couple of guys really makes us a dangerous ballclub.

“If certain guys get pitched around, we know the guys behind them can handle the task of providing offense and (helping pick them up). It’s just really nice to see the growth (and) continued development of these young players at such a high level on such a big stage.”

Baez changed the entire direction of this NLDS with one swing in the eighth inning of Game 1, reacting to a Johnny Cueto quick pitch and launching it out toward Waveland Avenue. The wind knocked the ball down before it landed in the Wrigley Field basket instead of Angel Pagan’s glove, the difference in a 1-0 game.

The Plan can think of everything – every possible matchup, variable and contingency – but there is still an element of luck. Ben Zobrist – an influential player on the Kansas City Royals team that won last year’s World Series – put it this way: “Any time you’re in tight games and you’re playing against good teams, you have to get breaks.”

But the bullpen also backed up the shortened Hendricks and Lackey starts by limiting the Giants to two runs across 10-plus innings, securing a Game 2 win and keeping the Cubs within striking distance for that Game 4 comeback.

Chapman – the kind of high-octane reliever the Giants failed to acquire at the trade deadline – notched three saves. Baez – who doesn’t even have a set position on a team this talented – made so many defensive plays look easy that his human-highlight-film reputation is going national.

The Cubs can now line up Lester for another tone-setting Game 1 against either the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series that begins Saturday night at Wrigley Field.

What can possibly go wrong? The Cubs still have so many different ways to weather two more postseason rounds and win eight more games.

“They play for one another,” bench coach Dave Martinez said. “Every day, it’s somebody different.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

andre_dawson.jpg
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

0218-tom-ricketts-joe-maddon.jpg
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.