As the Cubs popped champagne bottles and crushed beer cans, Jason Motte looked at Kyle Schwarber and said: “This is way better than college!”
The mosh pits formed outside the home dugout after Saturday afternoon’s 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had already clinched their playoff spot before the game – thanks to the San Francisco Giants losing on Friday night on the West Coast – but there was no way this group would turn down the chance to party.
That scene summed up the unique chemistry within this team. There was Motte – a veteran reliever who closed out the 2011 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals and now on the disabled list with a shoulder injury – messing with Schwarber. The rookie catcher/outfielder played his last game for the Indiana Hoosiers in June 2014.
Are the Cubs ready to handle the pressure in October, the weight of expectations from a reenergized fan base and the blanket coverage from the national media?
“We’re about to find out,” catcher Miguel Montero said.
The Cubs won’t be tourists in October this time. Kris Bryant watched a playoff game last year inside the Boras Corp. suite behind home plate at Angel Stadium of Anaheim and (obviously) posted a photo on his personal Twitter account.
“I can only imagine what it would be like in Wrigley Field,” Bryant said. “We’ve turned it around pretty quick. We’ve got a lot of good players here. And I hope it’s like that for a long time.”
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At that point, Schwarber hadn’t played a single game above the A-ball level. Addison Russell had 13 Triple-A at-bats total on his resume. Joe Maddon hadn’t yet opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. Jake Arrieta had a 4.48 career ERA in the big leagues.
The Cubs hadn’t made their big moves yet, hiring Maddon for his aura/confidence, signing Jon Lester and David Ross as a package deal for the rotation/clubhouse, and trading for Montero and Dexter Fowler to fill specific needs behind the plate, in center field and at the top of the order.
The Cubs embraced Lester’s “Play Stupid” message, Maddon’s groovy Zen philosophies and DJ Anthony Rizzo’s over-the-top clubhouse celebrations.
But don’t overlook the mental toughness it took to win 60 percent of their one-run games (32-21), go 12-5 in extra-inning games and survive in a division that should produce three 90-win teams.
“Playing like this all year has helped guys prepare for now,” said Lester, who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and has a 2.57 ERA in 84 postseason innings. “(It’s) the mindset – how these guys prepare every single day. Every day’s the same to them. They prepare the same. They show up ready to play.
“When you’re prepared and you’re ready to play, I’ve always felt like that nervous energy is easier to control or deal with while you’re in the game, because you have something to fall back on (when) the game speeds up a little bit.”
All the attention and glowing stories didn’t make the young Cubs soft, either. Ross is 38 years old now after coming up with the Los Angeles Dodgers, going to the playoffs with the Atlanta Braves and winning a World Series with the 2013 Red Sox. He hadn’t seen anything like the wall-to-wall coverage of Bryant during spring training.
“The environment, yeah, it’s different (in the playoffs),” Ross said. “But we’ve been playing a lot of meaningful games where our backs have been against the wall and a lot of people doubted us down the stretch.
“I don’t think it’s something that changes that much. It’s a more exciting environment and mistakes will hurt you. But this team came up with a lot of hype and a lot of people going: ‘These guys are supposed to do this, that and the other.’ They’ve lived up to everything that you could possibly imagine.
“(People) talk about how young guys these guys are. Yeah, age-wise, but mentally these guys are maybe even a little more polished than I am.”
Ross – an invaluable veteran presence Lester has called “The Grey Wolf” – laughed at his own line.
“I’m not worried about the postseason,” Ross said. “We’re going to take each day as it comes and play as hard as we can. That’s the one thing I love about this group. They’re not looking ahead. They’re not looking behind. They’re focusing on the day.”