NLDS

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Cubs identity entering 2018

One year ago today, it finally happened.

The Cubs erased 108 championship-less years in its franchise history, battling through — and coming out on top — one of the greatest baseball games ever played.

2016's Game 7 was far more entertaining than 2017's iteration, even if this fall's World Series was undeniably epic in its own right.

Watching as the Houston Astros reveled in all their euphoria late Wednesday night, the Cubs and their fans obviously wished it was the boys in blue celebrating a second straight world championship.

The Cubs are no longer defending or reigning champs. But as 2017 gets further in the rearview mirror and the focus shifts to 2018 and beyond, Theo Epstein knows exactly what he's got in his team.

"I'm proud of the players because to me, now, the identity of the organization is: This is a team you can count on to play into October, you can count on them to play deep into October, you can count on them to play some epic games in October and you like their chances of winning those games," Epstein said on Oct. 20, the day after the Cubs' season ended.

"And that's a hard-fought identity that our players and a lot of guys behind the scenes have worked really hard to attain. I'm proud of them for that.

"And part of our job is to help create that identity and put them in position to achieve as many of those goals as they can."

Epstein's point about the Cubs' epic games is an interesting one.

Obviously the contest known simply as "Game 7" is up there, with the most famous rain delay in sports — and Chicago — history. 

But then there's Game 5 of the NLDS this fall, when the Cubs somehow outlasted the Washington Nationals in a winner-take-all game of epic proportions. 

There was a time not too long ago when it was even a question if the Cubs would put together three straight winning seasons, let alone three trips to the playoffs (done for the first time since 1906-08) or three straight years as one of the top two teams in the National League.

That task was much tougher in 2017, when the entire organization was nursing a World Series hangover that they know publicly admit was as real as the 108-year drought. And they were able to somehow play 10 postseason games despite a historically bad offensive showing.

The memories of 2003, 2007 and 2008 are in the distant past, with expectations now that this Cubs team challenge for the title each season.

"The identity of this organization has changed in a lot of ways that are meaningful and positive," Epstein said. "Looking around at those guys, any year in which we went to our third straight NLCS, if we're being honest — there was a tinge of disappointment, obviously.

"And to have disappointment in a year in which you reach the NLCS for the third straight year shows just how much the expectations have been raised around here and how high the bar is. That is a great thing.

"...We didn't reach our ultimate goal, but there's real value in getting back to October, to winning a series, to giving your fans thrilling baseball."

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

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USA TODAY

Dusty Baker takes the fall for Nationals meltdown against Cubs

The Washington Nationals must have been sitting at home, watching the National League Championship Series and wondering: How did we lose to this team?

The Cubs poured so much physical effort, mental focus and emotional energy into those five playoff games against the Nationals that they didn’t have much left in the tank for the bigger, better Los Angeles Dodgers team that dominated the defending World Series champs in every phase and captured the NL pennant on Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

By midday Friday, the Nationals announced that manager Dusty Baker will not return for the 2018 season, while the contracts for the big-league coaching staff have also expired, leaving a franchise with chain-of-command issues in damage-control mode.

This is a bitter disappointment for Baker, who needs a World Series ring as a manager to put the final bullet point on a Hall of Fame resume and still grumbles about how things ended in 2006 after four up-and-down years managing the Cubs.

Baker, 68, a former Marine, All-Star player and all-around Renaissance man with a great feel for dealing with people and managing the clubhouse, apparently couldn’t overcome last week’s elimination-game meltdown at Nationals Park, where the Cubs hung on for a 9-8 victory and forced Washington into its fourth first-round playoff exit since 2012.

Baker’s in-game decision-making was already under the microscope and his teams have now lost 10 straight postseason close-out games, a major-league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Nationals also needlessly subjected Stephen Strasburg to withering criticism when Baker said the $175 million pitcher was feeling under the weather — maybe because of Chicago mold and hotel air-conditioning units — and being saved for Game 5. Only to flip-flop and watch Strasburg throw seven scoreless innings in a dominant Game 4 performance at Wrigley Field.

That unforced error and yet another manager search is not a good look for the Nationals, who made the announcement through the Lerner family ownership group after general manager Mike Rizzo repeatedly signaled that he expected to reach a new agreement with Baker after winning 192 games combined in two years and back-to-back division titles.

Since the franchise relocated from Montreal and abandoned the Expos logo in 2005, the Nationals have employed seven different managers and will be starting all over again in 2018, when Bryce Harper will be in his last season before becoming a free agent and probably wondering if Washington can finally get its act together.

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).