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.”

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

Willson Contreras' bat-flip game is already in midseason form

The MLB regular season is still 13 days away, but Willson Contreras is ready for the swings to count.

The Cubs catcher hit an absolute bomb of a homer Friday afternoon off White Sox pitcher Reynaldo Lopez, but it wasn't just a homer.

Contreras put an exclamation mark on the dinger (his third of the spring and the second this week) with an A+ bat flip:

I'm not sure what's more majestic: The 450-foot shot or the 45-foot bat-flip.

Either way, Contreras is ready for those 2018 NL MVP votes.

Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback


Cubs opposition research: It's an even year, so count on a Giants comeback

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:

San Francisco Giants

2017 record: 64-98, last place in NL West

Offseason additions: Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco, Tony Watson, Julian Fernandez

Offseason departures: Michael Morse, Matt Cain, Matt Moore, Denard Span, Kyle Crick, Christian Arroyo

X-factor: Brandon Belt

The trades for Longoria and McCutchen are going to get all the attention, but the Giants are sort of acquiring Belt, too. 

Their sweet-swining lefty first baseman only appeared in 104 games in 2017, missing the last few weeks of the season with a bad concussion. When he was on the field, he led the team in both homers (18) and walks (66) despite just 451 plate appearances. 

Belt has turned into one of the most patient hitters in the game and if he is able to stay healthy for a full season, would slot in perfectly in the 2-hole ahead of McCutchen, Longoria and Buster Posey. 

Projected lineup

1. Joe Panik - 2B
2. Brandon Belt - 1B
3. Andrew McCutchen - RF
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Evan Longoria - 3B
6. Hunter Pence - LF
7. Brandon Crawford - SS
8. Austin Jackson - CF

Projected rotation

1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Johnny Cueto
3. Jeff Samardzija
4. Ty Blach
5. Chris Stratton


The Giants tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball in 2017, surprising many around the league. Absolutely nothing went right for the team, from a lack of power on the field (Belt missed a third of the season and still led the team in homers), injuries (Bumgarner only made 17 starts) and general ineffectiveness (Mark Melancon).

But the Giants are a team that excels in even years, though the Cubs may have broken that juju by knocking San Fran out of the NLDS in 2016.

Still, between the return to health of key players and some big moves that improved the lineup, this team is primed for a return to form.

Watson is a nice piece at the back end of the bullpen and bet on a rebound from Melancon, who was one of the best late-inning relievers in the game from 2013-16 (1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 147 saves).

Expect more out of the rotation with Bumgarner and Cueto a dynamic 1-2 punch. Cubs fans are familiar with what Samardzija can do if he gets on a role, too.

It seems crazy to pick the Giants to finish higher than the Diamondbacks, but they still have the same core of players from the championship years and have a much-improved roster.

Prediction: Second place in NL West, wild-card team

Complete opposition research

San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Franciso Giants