PITTSBURGH – Late last September, almost two full weeks after clinching the division, Cubs manager Joe Maddon made PNC Park feel like spring training, writing out Cactus League lineups and following bullpen scripts.
Unprompted, a defensive and agitated Jake Arrieta wondered why the Cubs were substituting catchers in the middle of his start against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Miguel Montero, of course, took the bait, saying it would be up to the players to trick themselves and maintain their edge. Even clubhouse diplomat Ben Zobrist acknowledged the simmering frustrations with disrupted routines.
Cubs fans and the Chicago media questioned whether a 103-win team that had a double-digit lead in the National League Central since the first week of August could just flip a switch in the playoffs.
The counterargument became the 2015 Cubs storming into the wild-card game, beating the Pirates and silencing the blackout crowd here – and then running out of gas during an NL Championship Series sweep where they never led the New York Mets at any point.
Anthony Rizzo has the perspective of someone who lived through the highs and lows of the rebuilding years – and as a cancer survivor and a Roberto Clemente Award nominee who’s making sure his family gets to Chicago before Hurricane Irma roars through South Florida.
The inner confidence and competitive attitude that made Rizzo a 30-homer, 100-RBI force three years running applies here now: Forget about the last at-bat and focus on the next pitch. It doesn’t matter that the Cubs were a .500 team for three-plus months and still haven’t shaken the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals yet.
“We learned from 2015 how to control winning,” said Rizzo, who drew the ninth-inning walk that set up Alex Avila’s two-out, broken-bat RBI triple, the Cubs outlasting Gerrit Cole in Wednesday’s 1-0 victory. “Because by then, by the finish line, the emotion of the wild-card game, that (whole) emotional rollercoaster, it just wore us all out and we all hit a wall.
“In ’16, we were way more prepared. We boat-raced. Everyone was like: ‘Are they going to be able to do it? Are they going to be able to do it?’ And a few balls fell our way, and we did.
“Everyone has the experience now to know that, OK, we’ve had the outside noise of everything thrown at us. So I don’t think in here you’re going to find much panic. We know we’re in first place coming after a championship season, which is unheard of the last 10 years.”
Rizzo has a point in that the Cubs were the first defending World Series champions to be in first place on Labor Day since the 2010 New York Yankees. And built the largest Labor Day division lead for a defending World Series champion since the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies.
“We’re in a winning position,” Rizzo said. “We’re in position to do it. And we all want it.”
The young, inexperienced Brewers – who just got swept by the last-place Cincinnati Reds – are 4.5 games back now and in unchartered territory. The Cubs also believe they have grown from the adversity and will weather injuries that have hit the top of their rotation (Arrieta and Jon Lester) and the middle of their defense (Willson Contreras and Addison Russell).
“Two years ago, we didn’t know,” Maddon said. “We didn’t know anything until we got right outside the All-Star break and then all of a sudden found our traction. And then last year was a different narrative entirely. We took it from wire to wire, which is unusual, too.
“This year, again, everybody’s got a different opinion of you and everybody’s shooting for you. And then we’re playing with a different kind of a group, also, and still trying to maintain that level of excellence.
“So there’s three different roads that we’ve had over the last three years – ’15, ’16 and now ’17 – and it’s good to experience some different methods and understand that it’s not always going to be the same. You’re going to meet with different resistance and you just have to fight through it.
“I’m happy that the guys have responded the way they have, because nobody is out there making excuses at all.”
Rizzo also isn’t making guarantees anymore, because the Cubs already made history and understand what it takes to win in October.
“We’re in first place with a few weeks to go,” Rizzo said. “You got to get to that postseason and anything can happen.”