The Cubs don’t believe in billy goats or black cats, but team officials have sort of acknowledged the curse of winning the offseason, how teams slapped together at the winter meetings with big-name free agents and go-for-it trades usually seem to disappoint.
It won’t be this easy all season. The torn ACL and LCL in Kyle Schwarber’s left knee is part of the game and not an outlier occurrence. The Cincinnati Reds are in the teardown/sell-off phase the Cubs found themselves in while writing off the 2012, 2013 and 2014 major-league seasons.
Still, the Cubs have looked even better than advertised after funneling almost $290 million into a team that won 97 games and two playoff rounds last year.
“We’re ready to play baseball,” manager Joe Maddon said after Thursday night’s 8-1 win over the Reds at Wrigley Field. “The things you talk about in camp or in meetings, our guys are doing it. That’s about as well as I can explain it – following game plans, great at-bats, playing catch on defense, being in the right spot.”
The Cubs are 8-1 for only the sixth time in franchise history and off to their best start since 1969, when a Hall of Fame core built around Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins eventually faded down the stretch.
If that happens to the Cubs, you can probably point to injuries, underperformance and the back of the rotation. But Jason Hammel – who got booed in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series as the New York Mets rolled to a sweep at Wrigley Field – symbolizes the unfinished-business attitude.
After an offseason body makeover and mechanics breakdown, Hammel looks more like the guy who’s pitched at an All-Star level in the first half of the last two seasons (and not the one recovering from a leg injury that messed up his alignment last summer and had him running on fumes).
“It was a look-in-the-mirror type of moment,” said Hammel, who threw six scoreless innings, lowered his ERA to 0.75 through two starts and chipped in with a key fifth-inning RBI double that sailed over the head of Reds rightfielder Jay Bruce.
“You got to find out, figure out what’s inside and continue to work hard. I dedicated myself to making some changes this offseason. It was important. I felt bad, obviously, about the way things panned out last year. But that’s last year. I was able to focus on some good things this year and simplify as much as I could.”
Kris Bryant – who didn’t hit his first home run until the 21st game of his Rookie of the Year campaign last season – homered for the second night in a row to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead in the second inning. And this lineup goes for the jugular, with late-February addition/leadoff guy Dexter Fowler getting on base 23 times in his first 39 plate appearances this season.
The pitching staff fronted by Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has a 2.34 ERA, a 0.89 WHIP and 69 strikeouts against 17 walks.
The Cubs also drew more than 112,000 for a three-game series against a team that should be in the running for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft – on week/school nights where the temperature was between 48 and 43 degrees at first pitch.
“The expectations narrative is kind of over,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “I know it’s going to come up from time to time, but that’s more of an offseason thing to have to answer those questions.
“Now it’s about: How are we winning games? And why aren’t we winning more games? Who’s doing what right on the field in order to get a W? How are we coming together as a team? What kind of adversity do we have to overcome?
“(It’s) what I need to do better, what we need to do better 162 times. If we stick with that process enough, keep focused on that night’s game enough, then we can maybe get where we want to go.
“But if we start trying to put everything in the context of the postseason or the World Series or things like that – it’s just not a way a team can operate.”
Good luck with that. Ownership and the front office framed this season with the free agents who turned down bigger guarantees elsewhere, flocking here on the quest to end 1908. And then Maddon unveiled “Embrace The Target” T-shirts in spring training and started walking around with a bull’s-eye on his chest.
“We all understand each other,” Hammel said. “We’re close-knit and fighting for each other. It makes it easy to go out and have some fun instead of just go out and do your job.
“With long seasons like that, you need to have some guys that can loosen it up a little bit and we got enough of that. We got some professionals here, too. The goal was to get off to a hot start and try and continue that as long as we can.”
There’s also The Celebration Room in the new space-age clubhouse that becomes a Miami nightclub after each win at Wrigley Field.
“They’re going to need to put in new carpeting pretty soon,” Hammel said.