ANAHEIM, Calif. – If the Cubs don’t win the World Series, will this season be a failure?
The Cubs are light years away from pitchers getting asked about the trade deadline as soon as they report to spring training, or managers sitting on the hot seat, or prospects becoming overloaded with attention to distract everyone from the awful big-league product.
Year 5 of the Theo Epstein administration began on a beautiful, 75-degrees-and-sunny night in Southern California, with fireworks, a flyover and a sellout crowd (44,020) at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. But anxious Cubs fans, the build-‘em-up Chicago media and all those national experts can’t fast forward to October.
There is still more than 99 percent of the season left to play after Jake Arrieta again looked like a Cy Young Award winner while dominating the Los Angeles Angels during Monday’s 9-0 victory.
“I don’t think it’s fair to sit here on Opening Day and determine what’s going to be a success and what’s going to be a failure,” Epstein said. “It’s fair at the end of the year. As I look back on last year, I can identify a lot of things that were successes. And I can identify a lot of things that were failures, even in what was overall seen as a pretty darn good year for the organization.
“That’s what we’ll do at the end of the season, sit back and take stock on that and hope that these are the types of questions we’re asked again next Opening Day. The fact that you’re asking that means a lot’s going right for this organization.
“That’s a good feeling, but it doesn’t mean anything. We have to go out and prove it. We have to go out and earn it. We have to go out and overcome the adversity. That process starts today.
“That’s how we’re wired as an organization. Not to sit here and judge exactly what a success might be or who’s starting what game of the playoffs. We have to go earn it. We have nothing. We have nothing but each other, talent, character and an opportunity.”
The Cubs skipped the steppingstone season by winning 97 games and two playoff rounds last year – and then slamming on the accelerator this winter with almost $290 million spent on free agents.
The Cubs still had four 25-and-under players starting on Opening Day – Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler – for the first time since 1975. That critical mass of young talent means the buzz around this team is here to stay.
“Nothing’s promised in this game – or in life,” Epstein said. “Windows slam shut. People get run over by buses crossing the street. You can’t control everything. So you want to make the most of every day. You want to make the most of every opportunity.
“If you don’t get there, you want to make sure it wasn’t because you didn’t work hard enough, you weren’t aggressive enough, you weren’t committed enough. And I don’t think these players have that problem whatsoever.”
Looking physically recharged and emotionally refreshed after the greatest second half by any pitcher in the history of the game, Arrieta allowed only two hits and one walk across seven innings before the Cubs shut him down at 89 pitches.
“That’s a tone that we want to set early,” Arrieta said. “We were ready for this moment.”
A lineup with some American League thump generated 11 hits and seven walks. The Cubs made Garrett Richards throw 97 pitches before knocking the Angels starter out after five innings.
There was Dexter Fowler – Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” leadoff guy who waited all winter for the big score in free agency only to return on a one-year, $13 million guarantee – beginning the game with a double to right field, scoring on Anthony Rizzo’s two-out single up the middle and getting on base three more times.
There was the designated hitter Soler – a young player who looked like he might get lost in the shuffle on an uber-team – smacking an RBI single past diving Gold Glove shortstop Andrelton Simmons for a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning.
There was Miguel Montero – a two-time All-Star catcher hitting in the eighth spot – blasting a two-run homer to put the game out of reach in the sixth inning.
“The way we grinded at-bats today is the winning formula,” Rizzo said.
The Cubs are too deep and too talented to not be thinking about making history and unleashing the biggest party Chicago has ever seen. At the end of the night, you could hear the fans singing “Go Cubs Go” as they headed out toward the parking lots.
“Any time you don’t win the World Series, there’s some degree of disappointment,” Epstein said. “The expectations thing – I know it can kind of create the subtext that hangs over the club with every two-game losing streak or every game that goes wrong.
“Or every injury – people try to put it in the context of the ultimate goal of the World Series. But the reality is that’s not how we feel internally. We know it’s a grind. We know it’s a process. We know what we’re shooting for. We’re here to win the World Series.
“But you don’t think about that on a daily basis. You think about the challenges being presented to you, how you can overcome that, coming together as a team and an organization and working your tail off to move forward. That’s what drives us.”