Cubs
USA TODAY

Five breakthroughs that pushed Cubs into playoff showdown against Nationals

On Opening Night, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred huddled with a small group of reporters on Busch Stadium’s service level, listening to questions about what the Cubs could do for the sport’s profile (think late-1990s New York Yankees), why their personalities connect with fans (like today’s Golden State Warriors) and how Theo Epstein ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s “World’s Greatest Leaders” list (or two spots ahead of Pope Francis).

“Well, listen, I’m a good Catholic,” Manfred said. “I’m not going to comment on that one. It is Lent and all that.”

Manfred projected new-year optimism on April 2, because the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals would be on ESPN that Sunday night, and what he said then remains true now: “An iconic franchise with a great storyline is something special.”

Fast forward to October and the Cubs are still the defending World Series champs, heading into another made-for-TV matchup against the Washington Nationals after winning the National League Central by six games.

But the 2017 season didn’t at all feel like a coronation, the Cubs banging their heads against the .500 wall at 21 different points, suffering injuries up and down the roster and underachieving to a level where Epstein considered selling short-term assets like Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and All-Star closer Wade Davis if the team didn’t immediately respond after the All-Star break.

So while 92 wins and a third straight playoff appearance may have seemed preordained six months ago, the Cubs needed breakthrough moments to get into the best-of-five battle that begins Friday at Nationals Park:

• Shocking the baseball world by pulling off the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox became as much about stabilizing the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations as trying to save this season. But the Cubs accomplished both goals with that blockbuster deal, reenergizing a team that had been 43-45 at the All-Star break and 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

A low-key personality, Quintana still showed up at Camden Yards and immediately changed the clubhouse dynamics, dazzling the Cubs during his July 16 debut, an 8-0 win that became the exclamation point to a three-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. The consistent lefty handled the pennant-race pressure, going 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts after spending parts of six seasons on the South Side.

Quintana has never before pitched in the playoffs – or faced the Nationals – and will be counted on in future Octobers.

“Our guys were fired up about the trade, and they all came back really refreshed from the break,” Epstein said. “You could kind of see it in their eyes. It was just time to get going.”

• Deflecting questions about his diminished velocity, unconventional mechanics, postseason wear and tear and looming free agency, Arrieta rediscovered the kind of zone that made him the NL’s 2015 Cy Young Award winner. Arrieta’s strong July (3-1, 2.25 ERA) and lights-out August (4-1, 1.21 ERA) helped the Cubs enter September with a 3.5-game lead in the division.

Arrieta would always have an outsized influence on this season, because he’s already shown that he can carry a team and swing a playoff series, which makes his Grade 1 right hamstring strain such an X-factor against Washington.

“It’s almost like a new normal he’s trying to pitch with right now until he gets back to his old self,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a tough injury. It’s one of those things that’s in the back of your mind all the time.

“It’s there because you know how much it hurts if you do it again. There’s that guarded approach to everything you’re doing, so you’re trying to go through your typical patterns. But in the back of your mind: ‘If I go too far, is it going to pull?’

“Nope, it didn’t pull. Then your next pitch, you go through that same mental routine. Until you get beyond it. It’s just one of those things you have to get beyond, so it’s going to take time.”

• Imagine where the Cubs would be if they had let Jorge Soler’s value completely crater and failed to close the Wade Davis trade with the Kansas City Royals at the winter meetings. Davis helped the Cubs stay afloat and find their finishing kick by converting his first 32 save chances, preventing even more negativity from seeping into the clubhouse. By importing veterans like Davis, outfielder Jon Jay and setup guy Koji Uehara, the Cubs stressed World Series experience, a sense of professionalism and never-panic attitudes.

“We have such a great vibe, and such a great culture in our clubhouse, that we’re so careful now on who we bring in, because we want to make sure that we continue that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “When you look at the three major acquisitions this winter, all these guys have been part of championship teams. They understand what it takes to win.”

• Javy Being Javy: The Cubs actually gained ground in the standings while All-Star shortstop Addison Russell slowly recovered from a strained right foot and plantar fasciitis. Javier Baez started 41 of 42 games at shortstop between Aug. 3 and Sept. 16 and hit .282 with eight homers and 27 RBI during that stretch. Not that Baez lacked for confidence – this is someone who got the MLB logo tattooed onto the back of his neck as a teenager – but he is ready to build off last year’s breakout playoff performance.

“Without Javy being here when Addie got hurt, it would not look the same right now,” Maddon said. “I promise you it would not look the same. The ability to plug up the middle of the field the way Javy’s done in the absence of Addison – we would not be in this position right now. That’s it. Very simple.

“It’s so important to have a legitimate shortstop. We have two legitimate shortstops and they’re both (around) the same birth year. It’s very unusual to have that. The depth to us has been so invaluable.

“Give our front office – Theo and Jed – a lot of credit to have all the foresight to plan for those kinds of things. Without Javy, we would not have this many wins.”

• The Cubs were built to withstand the war of attrition across the 162-game schedule and outlast the smaller-market teams within their division.

Kyle Schwarber wound up with 30 home runs in a season marked by a failed leadoff experiment and a demotion to Triple-A Iowa. Ian Happ put up 24 home runs and an .842 OPS during his rookie season. Backup catcher Alex Avila was good enough to be a frontline guy for the Detroit Tigers teams that won four straight division titles between 2011 and 2014. Lefty swingman Mike Montgomery (7-8, 3.38 ERA in 130-plus innings) saved the bullpen and the rotation while lefty reliever Brian Duensing (2.74 ERA in 68 appearances) will also be in Maddon’s playoff circle of trust.

But beyond depth, there will be more than enough Bryzzo, big-game experience and premium talent on this playoff roster to beat a Nationals team that still has so much to prove in October.

“I think this year there have been long stretches where kind of everybody was pulling their hair out or searching a little bit,” Epstein said. “We’ve dealt with some things this year, but answered a lot of questions. There’s always a question: ‘Can you raise your level of play when it matters most?’ And I think our guys are proving that they can.”