Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

Cubs go quietly into winter, their reign as defending champs finally over

The armchair psychology went like this: Force the Los Angeles Dodgers onto the plane, let them think about it during the long flight to the West Coast, get in their heads during Friday’s day off and feel all the momentum and pressure shift in this National League Championship Series.

At least that’s what the Cubs told themselves and the media, whether or not they actually believed it, playing the kind of mind games designed for lesser teams. From Theo Epstein and the top of baseball operations down, the Cubs had enough connections to the 2004 Boston Red Sox to hope they could become only the second team to overcome an 0-3 LCS deficit.

That dream officially ended at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday when Willson Contreras lined Kenley Jansen’s 93.3-mph cutter at backup shortstop Charlie Culberson, another symbol of Dodger Way game-planning and the overall depth to withstand the loss of All-Star Corey Seager as he recovered from a back injury. The mosh pit formed in the middle of Wrigley Field, where it got very quiet except for a few sections of Dodger fans cheering and Gary Pressy playing the organ.

The Cubs are no longer the defending World Series champs after an 11-1 loss that had no drama or suspense and felt more like a getaway day. There will be no Game 6 or Game 7 this weekend at Dodger Stadium.

“I only experienced winning,” said Albert Almora Jr., a rookie outfielder on last year’s forever team. “Jon Jay told me: ‘Look at the expressions on their face when they’re celebrating on your field and let that sink in and learn from that and build from that.’”

You believed Almora, a baseball gym rat, when he stood at his locker and said: “It hurts.” But when the clubhouse doors opened to the media roughly 30 minutes after the final out, you didn’t really feel any tension in the room, more like a collective exhale, a time to sit around and drink a few Presidente beers and realize that the Dodgers deserved to go to the World Series for the first time since 1988.

“They just flat-out beat us,” said Kris Bryant, who got the first hit off Clayton Kershaw, a garbage-time homer in the fourth inning when the Cubs were already down 9-0.

Bryant is everything you could ever want in a franchise player – diligent on the field, polished off the field, even more productive in many ways after his MVP campaign, someone who doesn’t even drink during clinch celebrations – but even he admitted he still felt the World Series hangover that bugged the Cubs.

“I was just looking back at last year,” Bryant said. “I didn’t get home until like November 10 last year with all the festivities after winning and stuff. I think that really caught up to some of us this year. So I don’t know, maybe the extra time to recoup, maybe train a little harder. I am getting older, so I got to watch that.”

The reporters chuckled along with Bryant in a room where the sound system played classic rock like Dire Straits and Tom Petty. The Cubs know they should be good again in 2018 – and for years after that – and didn’t exactly sound devastated.

To be honest, Wednesday’s thrilling Game 4 win felt like the Super Bowl for this team, Jake Arrieta getting a standing ovation and tipping his cap before signing his free-agent megadeal somewhere else, Wade Davis having the guts to finish off a 48-pitch, two-inning save and the Cubs feeling the adrenaline rush of staving off elimination for another night.

When Jon Lester saw the media gathering by his locker, he joked: “What? I didn’t do s---. Why the f--- do you want to talk to me?”

“Obviously, nobody likes to lose, but we’ve been in the NLCS for three years in a row,” said Lester, who raised the bar for expectations when he signed a $155 million contract with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “You know how special that is. I know everybody kind of goes back to the first half of the season and they like to nitpick. But we won the division, made the playoffs and made it to the NLCS.

“Sometimes, you’re not always going to be in the World Series. The Dodgers are a really good team. They’re playing really good baseball right now. This series showed it. Sometimes, it is what it is, and you just kind of move on.”

The Cubs had Lester, a three-time World Series champion, lined up for a Game 6 that is no longer necessary. Jose Quintana – who shined against the Washington Nationals in the last round and battled Kershaw to a draw in Game 1 – didn’t give his team a chance this time.

Quintana, a signature trade-deadline move made with multiple playoff runs in mind, allowed runs in the first and second innings and left the bases loaded in the third for Hector Rondon, who watched Kike Hernandez drive the second of his three home runs into the right-center field basket for a grand slam.

The Cubs were desperate enough that John Lackey, five days before his 39th birthday, pitched two innings in what was likely his last game in a big-league uniform. Lackey kept walking out of the clubhouse and declined to speak with reporters: “No, I’m good, man.”

“It’s not easy to be the best,” outfielder Jason Heyward said, “but that’s what you want. You don’t want easy. You don’t want to expect to be going home every year. You want to be in October. You want to have a chance to win the World Series. And you want to be one of the teams that expects to be there.”

That’s what the Cubs will be next year, when the last day of the season won’t have the same big-picture perspective. It will be either a stinging loss or spraying champagne.

“Seems like a hundred years ago, right?” Lester said about his decision to sign with the Cubs. “It’s one of those Catch-22s. You look at it as it’s a disappointing season for the simple fact that we didn’t make it to the World Series. But you got to look at the positives, too, in that moment whenever you get on a plane to go home.

“We gave ourselves a chance. It just didn’t happen this year. We got beat by a better team. We beat them last year (in the NLCS), and they beat us this year, so you got to tip your hat sometimes, and you move on. We’ll be ready to go in spring training.”

What you may not know about each member of the 2018 Cubs


What you may not know about each member of the 2018 Cubs

We're in the home stretch now, folks.

Cubs baseball is just around the corner. Leading up to the Opening Day tilt with the Marlins in Miami, here is a rundown of fun facts from each of the 25 guys on the roster:

Tyler Chatwood

The only pitcher in Colorado Rockies history with a save and a shutout in the same season (2017).


Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Reds will waste another year of Joey Votto's greatness


Scouting the Cubs' competition: The Reds will waste another year of Joey Votto's greatness

The expectations couldn't be any higher for the 2018 Chicago Cubs. 

It's 2016 all over again. The goal isn't just a trip to the playoffs or another NL pennant. It's World Series or bust for this group of North Siders.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

Cincinnati Reds

2017 record: 68-94, last in NL Central

Offseason additions: Cliff Pennington, David Hernandez, Jared Hughes, Kevin Quackenbush

Offseason departures: Zack Cozart, Scott Feldman, Drew Storen

X-factor: Homer Bailey

Bailey appeared to be entering ace territory when the Reds locked him up to a six-year, $105 million extension before the 2014 season. Over the two years prior (2012-13), he went 24-22 with a 3.58 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 367 strikeouts over 417 innings.

But in the four seasons since he signed that extension, Bailey has pitched just 271 innings, going 17-18 with an ugly 4.95 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. 2017 (6.43 ERA, 1.69 WHIP) was especially ugly.

There is cause for optimism, however. In the final seven starts of the season last year, Bailey posted a 3.58 ERA and 1.19 WHIP.

Bailey is only 31 (and turns 32 in May) so there is still time. He's getting the Reds' Opening Day start and if he can rekindle his top-of-rotation form, it'd go a long way in the team's rebuilding.

Projected lineup

1. Billy Hamilton - CF
2. Jesse Winker - LF
3. Joey Votto - 1B
4. Eugenio Suarez - 3B
5. Scooter Gennett - 2B
6. Jose Peraza - SS
7. Scott Schebler - RF
8. Tucker Barnhart - C 

Projected rotation

1. Homer Bailey
2. Luis Castillo
3. Tyler Mahle
4. Sal Romano
5. Amir Garrett


When you replace Zack Cozart with Cliff Pennington and the "big" free agent splashes were a couple of 32-year-old relief pitchers (Hernandez and Hughes), you're not tryin', bro.

The Reds are in full rebuild mode, which is really sad for Votto in his age-34 season. Somehow, Votto seems to defy aging. He was the best hitter in the NL last year, leading the league in walks, on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+ and intentional walks while passing the 30-homer, 100-RBI threshold for the first time since 2010.

But poor Votto hasn't appeared in the playoffs since 2013 and the Reds are years away from another trip to October, especially in this suddenly-stacked division.

Castillo is a budding ace, Peraza and Winker could be nice pieces for the future, Suarez is locked up long-term and Barnhart is one of the more underrated backstops in the league. Top prospect Nick Senzel is also on his way soon, as are a gaggle of young starting pitchers.

There will inevitably be growing pains for all these inexperienced players, but things could be a lot worse for a rebuilding team. Still, by the time the Reds are ready to contend in 2020 or later, will Votto still be at the top of his game when he's at least 36?

Prediction: Last in NL Central