Cubs

Jake Arrieta on Cubs: ‘Nobody wants to play us right now’

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Jake Arrieta on Cubs: ‘Nobody wants to play us right now’

The Cubs feel invincible right now, and it’s not just all the beer and champagne talking after eliminating the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, two teams that won 198 games combined during the regular season and are now free to go golfing/hunting/fishing.

Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are ready and waiting for the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Mets, whichever big-market franchise wins Thursday’s do-or-die Game 5 on the West Coast and advances to what will be a glamorous National League championship series.

“We’re a scary team to play,” Arrieta said amid the celebration on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. “Nobody wants to play us right now. We’re tough to beat.”

[MORE: At Wrigley, Cubs become baseball's biggest party and best story]

The Cardinals learned that the hard way in the first-ever playoff matchup between two rivals have been competing against each other since 1892, helplessly watching the Cubs blast 10 home runs in four games and turning Clark and Addison into a huge block party.

“They’re the team to beat,” Arrieta said. “Or they have been for the past however many years. To go through the Pirates in the wild-card game and now the Cardinals – we feel like we can beat anybody. We’re a tough team to play, no matter who it is.”

Lester didn’t want this series to go back to Busch Stadium and reached out to manager Joe Maddon, saying he could pitch in Game 4. Maddon used eight other pitchers in a 6-4 victory and had already ruled out the idea of using Arrieta in a must-win Game 5 that’s no longer necessary.

[RELATED: Cubs finish Cardinals with Javier Baez starring in Addison Russell's absence]   

So while Los Angeles and New York will do everything to survive and advance, the Cubs can line up this year’s potential Cy Young Award winner and a two-time World Series champion for Saturday and Sunday at either Dodger Stadium or Citi Field.

“That’s big,” Lester said. 

Arrieta created unrealistic expectations by putting up the lowest ERA (0.75) after the All-Star break in major-league history and shutting out the Pirates during a complete-game victory in the wild-card showdown. His run of 21 consecutive quality starts – which included that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 30 – ended with Monday’s Game 4 win.  

But the Cubs believe superior conditioning, mechanical awareness and mental toughness will allow Arrieta to keep building on his career-high innings (almost 244 and counting) and pitch all the way through October.

[NBC SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

The Cubs had nights like this in mind when they signed Lester (2.66 ERA in 91-plus postseason innings) to a six-year, $155 million megadeal last winter.

Los Angeles? New York? Who cares? The Cubs have an anyone/anytime/anywhere attitude now.

“This is just the first step,” Lester said. “We’ve got a long ways to go and hopefully more celebrations ahead of us.”

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.