Joy to the World: Cubs finally end 108-year Series drought

Joy to the World: Cubs finally end 108-year Series drought

CLEVELAND – The End could have only happened like this, with a heart-pounding, jaw-dropping, head-spinning World Series Game 7 that left generations of Cubs fans rejoicing around the globe.

The waves of emotions rippled around Progressive Field after an 8-7 instant classic that began on Wednesday night in front of a sellout crowd of 38,104 and ended here early Thursday morning, the drama building for a massive TV audience watching the last great quest left in professional sports. The heartbreak would be felt throughout Cleveland, which had waited 68 years for this title shot, its fans sitting through 10 innings of motion sickness, false hope and the game at its unpredictable best.

The joyous celebration continued 350 miles away in Wrigleyville and wherever Cubs fans grew up listening to Harry Caray and watching games on WGN and worshipping all the great players who never got to experience euphoria like this, everyone from Ernie Banks to Ron Santo to Billy Williams to Ryne Sandberg to Andre Dawson.

This has always been the intoxicating lure of the Cubs, selling losing to alpha males and convincing all these highly skilled independent contractors/individual corporations that together they could someday be part of the team that makes history and lives forever in all those hearts and minds.

“I know there are so many people that are thinking of their grandfathers and their fathers right now in Chicago, and that’s what it’s all about,” general manager Jed Hoyer said inside a raucous visiting clubhouse filled with the sounds of clanking bottles and the awful smell of beer mixed with champagne. “It’s bigger than these 25 guys. It’s bigger than the organization. It’s about the city that stuck with the team forever.”

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What else could draw rock stars (Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan) and movie stars (Bill Murray, John Cusack, Charlie Sheen) and LeBron James’ Cavaliers into the same spot off Lake Erie? It had been 39,466 days since the Cubs won the 1908 World Series, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and 24,859 days since the Indians won the 1948 World Series.

So what’s another 17-minute rain delay after waiting more than a century?

Hoyer actually described it as “divine intervention,” because the Cubs had been four outs away from their coronation when manager Joe Maddon walked out toward the mound and took the ball from Jon Lester, a $155 million middle reliever in this winner-take-all thriller. In came Aroldis Chapman, the high-speed, high-maintenance rental closer who began to change his reputation by getting 12 outs and throwing 62 pitches in Games 5 and 6 combined. 

But that effort appeared to sap Chapman, who threw 14 straight fastballs to Brandon Guyer and Rajai Davis, with only one above 100 mph. Guyer’s RBI double made it 6-4 before Davis smashed another fastball onto the left-field patio just inside the foul pole for a game-tying two-run homer in the eighth inning.

The Indians wouldn’t just roll over, not with a Cy Young Award winner pitching three times in nine days (Corey Kluber), a bullpen that blew up the idea of conventional usage and a future Hall of Fame manager in Terry Francona. The Indians notched 94 wins and then contained two explosive offenses to get here, sweeping the Boston Red Sox, eliminating the Toronto Blue Jays in five games and running out to a 3-1 lead in the World Series.

No team had come back from that deficit since the 1985 Kansas City Royals, but there was nothing fluky or random about this. Theo Epstein’s front office built the best team in baseball, an Ivy League graduate acing clubhouse chemistry with a mixture of bonus babies, big-money free agents and players overlooked or undervalued in other organizations.

Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” press conference on Oct. 25, 2011 – when the Cubs put his name up in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee – would essentially become the Before and After points in franchise history.

On his last night as a big-league player, David Ross brought out a Game 7 lineup card that featured seven players between the ages of 22 and 27, plus Kyle Hendricks (26), this year’s ERA leader, as the starting pitcher, a dazzling array of young talent.

“It felt like June, May, the way that guys conducted themselves before the game,” said Ben Zobrist, who would become the World Series MVP. “Very similar, very light-hearted, everybody just going about their business, talking the game with each other.

“That, to me, said, you know what, this team’s fine. We’re going to let the talent and the ability take over and stay focused, because no one in here is treating this situation any different than we have all year. And that’s how championships are won.”

Though it remained a pop-culture shorthand and the backdrop to all those TV postcards from Wrigleyville, the Cubs killed that “Lovable Loser” image years ago, with the 2003 team in particular raising the bar after finishing five agonizing outs away from the World Series.

The Cubs finally did it with a hipster manager who enjoys drinking red wine and eating dark chocolate after games, never losing his cool in front of reporters or getting defensive about the second-guessing over how he handled Chapman. Instead of panicking in the face of all this pressure or pretending those immense expectations didn’t exist, Maddon set the tone with “Embrace The Target” T-shirts that literally put bull’s-eyes on their chest.

That’s how Maddon rolls, turning spring training and road trips into made-for-social-media moments, welcoming zoo animals, mimes, magicians and pajama parties. No, the players didn’t universally love all these stunts, but Hollywood couldn’t have invented a better ringmaster for this circus.

For all of Maddon’s camera-friendly charm, the groovy manager still believes in old-school concepts, the hard-hat lessons he learned while growing up in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region. Maddon just gives it a verbal flourish, from “Respect 90” to “the relentless execution of fundamentals and technique.”

Above all, the 2016 team created an environment where you could be yourself and make mistakes and move on from the wacky stuff that usually spelled Cubbie doom. Like Javier Baez committing two careless errors at second base and then leading off the fifth inning by driving a Kluber slider over the centerfield wall and knocking out Cleveland’s No. 1 starter.

Or Lester’s wild pitch bouncing into the dirt and ricocheting off Ross’ mask out toward the on-deck circle and allowing the Indians to score two runs in the fifth inning. “Grandpa Rossy” shook it off and drilled Andrew Miller’s 94-mph fastball out to center field in the sixth inning, touching home plate and bumping crotches with Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler on his way back into the dugout.

So by the time that storm rolled into Cleveland, the Cubs needed that break to regroup and reset a 6-6 game heading into the 10th inning. Kyle Schwarber walked to home plate less than seven months removed from reconstructive surgery on his left knee. The man-child they call “Schwarbs” singled off Bryan Shaw through the shift into right field and the Cubs were off once again.

With pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. on second base, the Indians intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo to get to Zobrist, who knocked an RBI double down the left-field line for the go-ahead run. Third catcher Miguel Montero – who wondered if he would get released this summer – added the insurance run the Cubs needed with an RBI single to make it 8-6.

In the end, this team wore down the Indians and the rest of Major League Baseball, the fans singing “Go, Cubs, Go!” on a wacky, rainy, totally unforgettable night in Cleveland, where no one believes in curses anymore.

“We killed it,” Montero said. “It’s done. It’s over.”

More on the World Series victory

--Finally: The Cubs are World Series champs

--The wait –and the weight- is over: Cubs fans celebrate World Series title

--Barack Obama congratulates Cubs World Series championship

--Famous Cubs fans celebrate World Series title on Twitter

--Ben Zobrist becomes first Cub ever to win World Series MVP

--Numbers game: statistical oddities of the Cubs World Series title

--Jed Hoyer: Rain delay was ‘divine intervention’ for Cubs

--Fans give Cubs a taste of home in Cleveland

--Ben Zobrist delivers exactly what the Cubs expected with massive World Series

--‘Dreams come true’: Bill Murray reacts to Cubs winning the World Series

--Big surprise: Kyle Schwarber plays hero again for Cubs in World Series Game 7

- Ryne Sandberg: World Series ‘made it able for me to live in the present’


Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong,” he said. “You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate.

“So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

“I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ … But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season.”

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'


Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”