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.”

CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role


CubsTalk Podcast: The cost to get Chris Archer and how Brandon Morrow can fill an Andrew Miller-esque role

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull break down where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in the Cubs' pitching plans while Kyle Schwarber craziness reaches new heights.

Peter Gammons and Bob Nightengale weigh Schwarber’s trade value and how likely it may be that the Cubs could secure a Chris Archer, Gerrit Cole or Michael Fulmer this winter. Nightengale also explains how Brandon Morrow could fill an Andrew Miller-esque role for the Cubs.

Plus, Cubs manager Joe Maddon stops by the CubsTalk Podcast to chat with Kelly about his offseason gameplan and why he’s still such a staunch believer in rest even when away from baseball.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

Where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in Cubs pitching plans for 2018 and beyond

Where Brandon Morrow and Drew Smyly fit in Cubs pitching plans for 2018 and beyond

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Brandon Morrow is officially official as a member of the Cubs pitching staff (finally), and the team also added another intriguing arm Tuesday night at the Winter Meetings.

The Cubs announced a two-year deal for Morrow with a club/vesting option for 2020. They also signed left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly on a two-year deal worth a reported $10 million, though the 28-year-old pitcher had Tommy John in June and likely won't contribute much in 2018.

The Cubs are looking toward the future with Smyly as a possible 2019 rotation piece. If he's able to return at all in 2018, it will probably only be as a bullpen option.

"This is a move that’s focused on 2019," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday night. "Really good high-quality starting pitcher, and we’re excited to get him on this deal, rehab him and hopefully get him back to exactly where he was.”

Smyly did not pitch at all in 2017 and was non-tendered by the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 1. He made 30 starts for the Tampa Bay Rays (and new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey) in 2016, going 7-12 with a 4.88 ERA. Joe Maddon also managed Smyly for a couple months at the end of the 2014 season.

“Both [Hickey and Maddon] liked him a lot," Hoyer said. "We talked to Jim about him, thinks really highly of him, says he’s exceptionally deceptive with how he pitches.

"Both his fastball and his curveball are really deceptive, good cutter and loves how he competes. So Jim was a big part of us wanting to do this.”

Smyly was one of the pieces that went from the Detroit Tigers to the Rays for David Price at the trade deadline in 2014. In his first 19 starts with the Rays between 2014 and 2015, Smyly went 8-3 with a 2.52 ERA and 121 strikeouts in 114.1 innings.

With Smyly not expected to impact 2018's rotation, the Cubs might still be in the market for another starting pitcher this winter, or they might choose to honor Mike Montgomery's wishes and insert him into the rotation full-time (and subsequently look for a potential swingman for the bullpen and rotation depth).

It'd be hard to just hand Smyly a spot in the 2019 Cubs rotation, but the Cubs committing somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million on a two-year deal indicates they're serious about his long-term potential. Plus, he won't turn 30 until June 2019.

The Cubs also have their other four starters — Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood — all signed through the 2020 season, so either they won't be in hard on long-term free-agent signings like Alex Cobb or would just stockpile pitching and sort out any possible six-man rotation issues a year from now.

As of right now, Morrow would serve as the Cubs' closer, but they're still in the market for impact relief pitching and are open to anything. Morrow is also a guy that could slot in as a setup man or high-leverage guy coming in at the most opportune time in the game, even if that means the fifth or sixth inning.

“Did an awesome job in the eighth inning last year for the Dodgers," Hoyer said. "We’re excited to have him. He’s going to pitch super high-leverage innings. If the season started tomorrow and we played a game, he’d be our closer.”