Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo show Nationals why Cubs are the defending champs

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo show Nationals why Cubs are the defending champs

WASHINGTON – The Cubs killed their identity as loveable losers haunted by goats and black cats at 12:47 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2016 at Progressive Field, beating the Cleveland Indians in an epic World Series Game 7 that would change their lives forever.   

This is who the Cubs are now, the adrenaline junkies addicted to playing aces in front of big crowds on national TV and waiting to see how the Washington Nationals respond to the pressure.  

It didn’t matter that Stephen Strasburg needed only 52 pitches to power through five innings and flirt with a no-hitter on Friday night at Nationals Park. This is exactly what the Cubs had been waiting for during a regular season that at times felt more like a chore.   

That big-game experience and all the little things mattered as the Cubs took control with a 3-0 win that changed the psychology of this best-of-five National League Division Series.

“Last year, it was just like: ‘You guys have to win the whole thing or you’re a failure,’” Bryant said afterward in a relatively tame and quiet visiting clubhouse. “And we did it. But this year, it’s no different. We want to be the last team standing. It’s kind of a cool spot to be with nobody really expecting us to.”

Only the Cubs could play the underdog card when they have two players in the top three for jersey sales in Major League Baseball this season – The Bryzzo Effect – plus Javier Baez at No. 10. But those three pounced on a Washington error after Kyle Hendricks matched Strasburg through five scoreless innings.

A Nationals team that has never won a playoff series came unglued when Anthony Rendon fumbled the hard-hit ball Baez chopped down the third-base line. A textbook bunt from Hendricks – so sneaky good and fundamentally sound in every aspect of the game – moved Baez into scoring position.

Baez set the tone for the entire playoffs last October when his clutch home run off Johnny Cueto landed in the basket fronting the Wrigley Field bleachers, the Cubs winning a 1-0 Game 1 against the even-year San Francisco Giants.

“We trust each other,” Rizzo said. “That’s the big, big thing for us. We know someone is going to come through at some point. (Look at) last year, Game 1. I said it to Javy: ‘History is going to repeat itself. You might have to go deep for us and win 1-0.’”

[MORE CUBS-NATIONALS: The state of Jake Arrieta, Max Scherzer and Cubs’ playoff pitching plans]

The Cubs have that aura, attention to detail and killer instinct now. Bryant – who had “only” 73 RBI during a season that topped last year’s NL MVP campaign in some ways – notched the first hit off Strasburg with two outs in the sixth inning by drilling a 96-mph fastball into right field.

While Baez scored, Bryant alertly hustled on Bryce Harper’s throw and slid headfirst into second base. Rizzo then smashed a line drive that bounced into Harper’s glove as he stumbled onto the grass. Within three pitches, the battle-tested Cubs had scored two unearned runs and silenced the sea of red all around Nationals Park.

“You feel the nerves and all that,” Bryant said. “I just think as the playoffs go on and you play more playoff games, it kind of becomes a little bit easier just to go out and play.”

A Cubs team that already feels like this is playing with house money will now hand the ball to three-time World Series champion Jon Lester on Saturday and – at worst – leave Washington with home-field advantage in a best-of-three matchup where the Nationals have everything to lose.

“We just trust that someone is going to do it,” Rizzo said. “It doesn’t have to be me or Kris or Addie (Addison Russell) or J-Hey (Jason Heyward). No one puts that pressure on (themselves) to make sure: ‘I have to do it.’ It’s not ‘I.’ We know that someone is going to do it.”

Report: Cubs fire pitching coach Chris Bosio after six seasons with team


Report: Cubs fire pitching coach Chris Bosio after six seasons with team

In Theo Epstein's end of season press conference on Friday he said that any coach Joe Maddon wants back will return in 2018.

Evidently, there's one coach Maddon didn't want back.

According to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, the Cubs have fired longtime pitching coach Chris Bosio.

Bosio served as the Cubs pitching coach from 2012-17. He was the team's pitching coach under former managers' Dale Sveum (2012-13) and Rick Renteria (2014), and was retained when Maddon was hired as manager of the Cubs in 2015.

Bosio, who is one of the most respected pitching coaches in baseball, was instrumental in the career resurgence of Jake Arrieta who captured the Cy Young award in 2015, and the development of 27-year-old starter Kyle Hendricks (MLB's ERA leader in 2016).

One reason that could've led to Bosio's firing was the pitching staff's control issues during both the regular season and postseason, which Epstein mentioned during Friday's press conference. The Cubs issued the fifth-most walks (554) in the National League during the regular season and the highest total (53) during the postseason.

As the Cubs hit the market for a new pitching coach, Nightengale mentioned that one name that could be on the radar is former Tampa Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, who parted ways with the organization following the 2017 season.

Hickey served as Maddon's pitching coach in Tampa Bay from 2006-2014.

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Cubs will be open for business as Theo Epstein weighs trading hitters for pitching

Theo Epstein answered questions from the Chicago media for more than an hour on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the most interesting part might have been what the Cubs president didn’t say, something along the lines of: These are our guys.

Or at least Epstein didn’t give the same full-throated endorsement of The Core that he delivered after engineering the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox this summer, getting an All-Star pitcher without giving up anyone from the big-league roster.

Whether it’s the way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs throughout the National League Championship Series that ended Thursday night, the inconsistencies and frustrations during a 43-45 first half of this season or the reality of losing 40 percent of the rotation, you walked out of that stadium club press conference thinking big changes could be coming.

“We’re going to pursue all avenues to get better,” Epstein said.

The Cubs already understood this would be a challenging time to dramatically reshape their pitching staff, with Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, Big Boy John Lackey and All-Star closer Wade Davis about to become free agents.

The Cubs don’t really have many (any?) high-end, headliner prospects left to trade after borrowing heavily from their farm system to acquire Aroldis Chapman for last year’s World Series run and get Quintana to help solidify the rotation through 2020.

All of Major League Baseball is looking beyond this winter and preparing for the monster free-agent class that will hit the open market after the 2018 season.

Meaning it’s time for the Cubs to make some difficult decisions about all these young hitters they’ve collected.

“It may or may not be,” Epstein said. “Those choices, they’re not unilateral things. You can’t sit there and decide: ‘Hey, this guy, we’re moving him.’ Because you don’t know what the return might be. You don’t know how the different moving parts might fit together.

“I think going into the offseason prepared to make some tough choices and execute on them — and keeping an open mind to anything — is appropriate under the circumstances where we have some obvious deficits and we have some real surplus with talented players who are really desirable.”

Let’s assume All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras are essentially untouchable.

The Cubs used the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft on Ian Happ with the explicit idea that the college hitter should be on a fast track and could be flipped for pitching later: Is it time to sell high after the rookie just put up 24 homers and an .842 OPS?

During an exit meeting with Albert Almora Jr., Epstein said he couldn’t promise an everyday job in 2018, though the expectation would be more responsibilities: Think anyone else would be interested in a potential Gold Glove center fielder who’s already playoff-tested?

Do you want Addison Russell or Javier Baez as your everyday shortstop for the next four years? Is there an American League team willing to bet big that Kyle Schwarber will crush 40 homers a year as a designated hitter?

The Cubs have to ask themselves those types of questions, which could mean getting outside of their comfort zone and taking on some riskier pitching investments and sapping the strength that has turned them into the dominant force in the NL Central.

“We’ve really benefitted from having two or three extra — and ‘extra’ in quotes because they’re not really extra — starting-caliber players on the roster,” Epstein said. “That helped us win 97 games in ’15, 103 last year, 92 this year. That’s as big a part of the club as anything.

“Having an Addison Russell go down and being able to move Javy Baez to shortstop — that’s an obvious example of it. But those things show up every week for us. There’s a day where someone can’t make the lineup and someone else slides in and you’re still starting eight quality guys. That’s huge.

“Sooner or later, you reach a point where you have to strongly consider sacrificing some of that depth to address needs elsewhere on the club. There’s no sort of deadline to do that. But I think we’re entering the phase where we have to be really open-minded to that if it makes the overall outlook of the team and organization better.”

Translation: The Cubs are open for business. Make your best offer.