CINCINNATI – If you had any lingering doubts about Jake Arrieta’s swagger – or how much the Cubs wanted to get these meaningless games over with – just listen to his answer to this question: Mets or Giants?
“Who gives a s---?” Arrieta said. “Who cares? Now the fun starts.”
Welcome to “TRY NOT TO SUCK-TOBER,” where this team will either live forever as the 2016 World Series champs or cause massive heartbreak for Cubs fans all over the world.
Suffocating pressure? Unfair expectations? Random crapshoot? The Cubs signed up for all this and put the bull’s-eye on their chests, beginning with last year’s joyride into the National League Championship Series – where they got swept by the Mets – and an offseason spending spree on free agents that zoomed toward $290 million and a spring-training circus that featured mimes, zoo animals and karaoke.
Ringmaster Joe Maddon will now lead the Cubs into what they believe will be a parade down Michigan Avenue. Assuming they can stay focused and healthy, get a little lucky and perform at the optimal level needed to win 11 postseason games. After Sunday’s 7-4 comeback victory over the Reds at Great American Ball Park, the best team in baseball left Cincinnati understanding that they are now the hunted.
“The boxes have been checked for the regular season,” Maddon said. “All the stuff we’ve talked about in camp regarding embracing the target and utilizing the words ‘pressure’ and ‘expectations’ in a positive way – I think we’ve done all those things.
“Give our guys credit, man, because going into camp, a lot of times when you have all those words attached to you, it can lead to a bad result during the season. But our guys have handled it well.”
The Cubs notched 103 victories and won the NL Central by 17.5 games, the Giants clinching the second wild-card spot with Sunday’s 7-1 win over the Dodgers and sending the Cardinals into a long winter. The Cubs will next face the winner of the wild-card showdown between Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday night at Citi Field.
“We know that nothing’s handed to you,” said Jason Heyward, the Gold Glove outfielder who defected from the 100-win St. Louis team the Cubs shoved out of last year’s playoffs. “You got to earn whatever you have. You see teams built with certain rosters and they don’t perform. It’s not throwing shade at the Nationals, but they’ve been picked to win for a while. They won their division again, but (it’s been the same thing with) the Dodgers – you see teams that are slated to do things and it doesn’t pan out that way.
“We don’t feel like we’ve done anything yet. We’ve punched our ticket to get in – and that’s the bottom line. You want to be in the dance and play for that last game.
“Obviously, we’re not above the game, so we’ve got some work to do to get ready and try to go where we want to go.”
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The Cubs got off to a fast start, winning 25 of their first 31 games before taking over the All-Star Game this summer, flying seven players to San Diego. Anthony Rizzo could see Kris Bryant pulling away in the MVP race and believes his teammate deserves the award. Together, Bryzzo generated 71 homers and 211 RBI. Kyle Hendricks (2.13) beat Jon Lester (2.44) for the ERA title in a rotation that featured four 15-game winners, with the fifth guy being two-time World Series champion John Lackey.
But the Cubs also have a next-man-up philosophy. With two outs in the ninth inning, Matt Szczur knocked a go-ahead, two-run double that bounced past Reds first baseman Joey Votto and into right field. Pinch-hitter Miguel Montero followed it up by blasting a two-run homer into the right-field seats off Reds reliever Raisel Iglesias.
By Sunday night, splashes of water covered the door to the manager’s office in the visiting clubhouse, the walls and the black leather couch still drenched from the postgame celebration recognizing Maddon’s 200th win with the Cubs.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Rizzo said. “In two years – 200 wins – for him, for us, for this organization.”
The Cubs will enjoy Monday’s off-day in Chicago before returning to Wrigley Field on Tuesday for a simulated game, the first of three straight workouts leading into Friday’s Game 1. Maddon’s message: Don’t change a thing.
Maybe that’s why Arrieta – who trolled Pittsburgh fans on Twitter before shutting down the Pirates in last year’s wild-card game and silencing the blackout crowd at PNC Park – doesn’t give a s--- who the Cubs play in October.
“Whether you’re an underdog or the favorite, you still have to win,” Arrieta said. “Regardless of who we face, they’re going to be good. The guy on the hill’s going to be good. And their lineup’s going to be good. If we execute more pitches than they do – and we get a couple timely hits – I like our chances.
“It’s a roll of the dice. But with the group we have, we’re set to make a really deep push. And hopefully get over that hump from last year and get this thing done for Chicago.”