Divided, tone-deaf, gridlocked, the Cubs reflected Washington the last time they played at Nationals Park, where veteran catcher Miguel Montero went rogue during an epic postgame rant and the defending World Series champs kept stalling around the .500 mark.
Team president Theo Epstein watched the Nationals run wild across his iPad on June 27 while he was visiting the Class-A Myrtle Beach affiliate, a breakdown that had Montero pointing the finger directly at Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta for those seven stolen bases.
Within seconds of seeing those explosive comments in his South Carolina hotel room, Epstein knew he wanted to get rid of Montero, who couldn’t hide his frustrations with manager Joe Maddon…during a radio interview the day of the championship parade and Grant Park rally last November.
Montero wasn’t exactly a lone wolf, speaking out for players who didn’t always see the communication skills that Maddon showed off during his media sessions. Even Arrieta appreciated Montero’s honesty, saying: “I love Miggy.”
Looking for a button to push with a team that wasn’t getting a jolt from The Cubs Way culture or Maddon’s laissez-faire style, Epstein DFA’d Montero and eventually shipped him to the Toronto Blue Jays.
The next day, about half the team showed up at the White House, where board member Todd Ricketts told Donald Trump the Cubs would run into the Nationals in the playoffs and predicted: “You’ll see them crumble.”
In reality, the Cubs were dangerously close to imploding, which will make it fascinating to watch which team crumbles during the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night in Washington.
As Epstein consulted with a few players about the Montero decision, he sent this message: Get your stuff together and play with an edge if you want us to trade the Class-A talent here in Myrtle Beach for big-league reinforcements this summer.
The Cubs also quietly put the word out to teams looking for starting pitching and bullpen help: There was a remote possibility that looming free agents Arrieta and Wade Davis would be available at the July 31 trade deadline. A new collective bargaining agreement – with the international spending restrictions, luxury-tax implications and a modified qualifying-offer system – would have been part of the rationalization.
“Not blowing it up,” Epstein said. “But when you’re five-and-a-half out, if you have a bad road trip and a bad homestand and then you’re 10-and-a-half out, absolutely, we would have sold.”
That’s the deficit the Cubs faced on July 9, when Jon Lester got rocked during a 14-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field that left the defending World Series champs with a 43-45 record. During that final game before the All-Star break, Epstein received a text message from White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, sparking the Jose Quintana trade talks.
Davis – who wasn’t even a part of last year’s championship team – would be the only player representative at the All-Star festivities in South Florida. Epstein went into stealth mode that week – credit Reddit users Wetbutt23 and KatyPerrysBootyHole with the scoop – and gave up top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease in a blockbuster deal for Quintana that would solidify the rotation through 2020.
Epstein left his family’s beach vacation in Massachusetts to join the team at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where he got his start in professional baseball as a summer intern out of Yale University in 1992, the same year that trendsetting stadium opened in downtown Baltimore.
Epstein noticed the mood in the visiting clubhouse after that first game back from the All-Star break on July 14 – a 9-8 victory where the Cubs got homers from Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, still almost blew an eight-run lead and began a six-game winning streak.
“In the first half, we were kind of tired of the postgame celebration,” Epstein said. “It was getting kind of old.
“Folks don’t understand. Once you win it all – and you’ve given everything you’ve had – the specter of playing 162 games and making them all meaningful is really overwhelming. It’s hard to get up for all of them.
“The first half, there were just a lot of things, different gripes going on. It was kind of more a collection of individuals than it was anything else.
“And then as soon as we hit the break – and we had to answer the bell – our guys did. We came back from the break as a team – and as a really good team – and we celebrated that win like it was a postseason win.
“We took off from there. That vibe of a loose atmosphere – but very connected group – was back. And we kind of rode it the whole second half.”
The Milwaukee Brewers, a rebuilding team with an Opening Day payroll around $56 million, spent 69 days in first place, but never after July 25. Epstein’s front office never got to the point of exchanging names or discussing any white-flag deals in depth or really considering a breakup of their young core. But the Cubs now believe that adversity will make them stronger in October.
“Look, it was crunch time early this year,” Epstein said. “If we had had a bad road trip and a bad homestand to start the second half, we’re selling. We didn’t. We started to play pretty good baseball right off the bat. We added and our guys elevated their level of play and had a hell of a second half and a great closing kick.
“And now we’re going into the playoffs with as much momentum as anybody.”