ST. LOUIS – After a century of waiting, the Cubs won their first playoff series at Wrigley Field on October 13, 2015, unleashing so much energy that you could feel the press box shaking, hear the crowd deliriously chanting “LAC-KEY! LAC-KEY!” and sense the heated rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals would never be the same again.
“That was a really transformative moment for us,” Theo Epstein said. “That was the point at which we no longer feared them.”
Epstein spoke carefully before Tuesday night’s game at Busch Stadium, not wanting to jinx it or get too far ahead of himself, and the magic number to celebrate a second straight National League Central title would remain stuck at one with an 8-7 loss in front of 41,944. But Epstein didn’t need to be drenched in champagne and have a beer in his hand to appreciate how the Cubs have already shifted the balance of power in the division.
After building two World Series teams for the Boston Red Sox and ending an 86-year championship drought that haunted New England, Epstein took over baseball operations at Clark and Addison with a “Baseball is Better” press conference on Oct. 25, 2011 that featured his name up in lights on the iconic marquee and a promise to build a scouting-and-player-development machine.
Three days later, the Cardinals won their 11th World Series title in the walk year for Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, giving Epstein a new Evil Empire to take down after his epic battles against the New York Yankees.
“When I think back to that time with the Red Sox,” Epstein said, “I remember with the Yankees when I first got there I felt like we kind of feared them a little bit. And then we were able to knock them off in ’04. It changed the dynamic a little bit, at least how we felt about them. We respected them, but didn’t fear them.
“I think, in a way, the same thing is happening with the Cardinals.”
Epstein feels like that 2015 NL Division Series is the one that gets overlooked while accounting for this golden age of baseball on the North Side. The Cubs have won 288 regular-season games since the beginning of the 2015 season, the franchise’s best three-year stretch in more than a century (300 wins between 1909 and 1911). Since 1940, the Cubs have only had two other runs with at least three consecutive winning campaigns: 1967-72 and 2007-09.
In beating the Cardinals, Anthony Rizzo validated his faith during the rebuilding years and Kyle Schwarber added to his legend by launching a ball onto a Wrigley Field video board. Young players like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Javier Baez developed their muscle memory in big games. Kyle Hendricks – who would get the ball in a World Series Game 7 for the ages – made his first career playoff start.
That postseason surge also helped underwrite an offseason spending spree on free agents that zoomed toward $290 million, landing World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, ex-Cardinal Jason Heyward, future Cardinal Dexter Fowler and John LAC-KEY, who gets to start a Big Boy Game on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, a place where The Cardinal Way doesn’t have the same intimidation factor anymore.
“When you can win a division with them in it, it means a lot,” Epstein said. “When you can get by them in the postseason, it means a lot, because they’re very successful at what they do.
“We will always respect them. That’s what makes it meaningful to beat them and to do what we’ve done relative to them the last three years. But I think there’s no fear there.”