Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins


Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins

MILWAUKEE – Playoffs? Joe Maddon almost sounded like he had been pregaming a little too hard before his first press conference at The Cubby Bear last November.

And then the new Cubs manager offered to buy everyone the first round The Hazleton Way – a shot and a beer – at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee. Whatever, forget it, he’s rolling.  

But this party will continue into October, the Cubs finishing an unbelievable regular season with 97 wins after Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

As crazy as that would have sounded at the beginning of spring training – when Maddon kept talking about the playoffs, man – how about that only being good enough for third place in the National League Central?

The Pittsburgh Pirates finally clinched home-field advantage for the wild-card game on Sunday, beating the Cincinnati Reds 4-0 to notch their 98th win.

So the Cubs will fly to Pittsburgh on Monday, work out at PNC Park on Tuesday and start potential Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta on Wednesday against Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA) and a Pittsburgh team that’s been hardened by earning three postseason appearances in the last three years.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta could be unstoppable in October]

“Obviously, the adrenaline’s going to run a little more,” Anthony Rizzo said. “But I think we’re ready for it. We played tough games against Pittsburgh all year – at their place, at our place – and we got Jake on the mound. We know when he’s out there, we’re a really, really loose bunch. We’re excited for it.”

Rizzo – who got his 100th and 101st RBIs with a bases-loaded single in the first inning – had stood in the same visiting clubhouse after Game 162 last season and said it was finally time to compete. 

That was before Maddon escaped from his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, Jon Lester signed a $155 million megadeal to make history in Chicago and Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber made their big-league debuts.

The All-Star first baseman then predicted a division title during a stop at a local elementary school leading up to Cubs Convention. The St. Louis Cardinals won the Central, but this is still a 24-game improvement from 2014.

“I just had a feeling that this was going to be a good year,” Rizzo said. “I obviously said it in January. But we just raised our bar. The bar is set from here on out – to keep repeating this.”

[ALSO: Motte trying to get back to Cubs for playoffs]

The Cubs watched Arrieta develop into a 22-game winner and finish with the lowest post-All-Star break ERA in major-league history (0.75). Bryant became an All-Star and had a Rookie of the Year season with 26 homers and 99 RBI.

Dexter Fowler had a sensational walk year, scoring 102 runs and filling holes at the top of the order and in center field. Hector Rondon – the Rule 5 guy – saved 30 games and put up a 1.67 ERA. 

“I’m really hoping or anticipating that our guys are going to be the same,” Maddon said. “That’s why I preach it all year long – I want us to play the same game. We’re not going to do anything differently.

“There’s not going to be anything new to put in there. There’s no new packages. We’re not running a new offense. We’re not going to blitz any more. No 3-4 (defense). Please don’t do anything differently. Just go play.”

The Cubs have gone 46-19 since getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the Philadelphia Phillies, the worst team in baseball, finding another gear that Theo Epstein’s front office didn’t see coming in Year 4 of the rebuild. 

The Cubs won 34 one-run games this year, 23 in their last at-bat and 13 in a walk-off celebration, showing mental toughness and pitch-to-pitch focus for a goofy bunch that likes to rub helmets and have dance parties in the clubhouse.

The Cubs closed with an eight-game winning streak and a real sense of momentum knowing Arrieta will stare down the Pirates in a one-game playoff. 

[SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

“We like our chances,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “We feel good about it. Everybody is pulling in one direction, believing. And that’s a powerful thing when you got millions and millions of fans and players and personnel all believing we can pull this thing off.

“We’re on a good roll. We just want to keep rolling. All we want to know is if it’s a day game or a night game.” 

It will be a 7 p.m. CST start on Wednesday in Pittsburgh and we’ll see how this group responds under the bright lights of October. The Cubs essentially had identical records at Wrigley Field (49-32) and on the road (48-33) this year and have an anytime/anywhere attitude with Arrieta on the mound.  

After finishing in fifth place five times during his first five seasons, making three All-Star teams, losing his job at shortstop and moving to second base without complaint, Starlin Castro might appreciate this more than anybody else inside the clubhouse.

“We worked so hard to be good,” Castro said. “And now is the time. Just keep showing it.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


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.