Cubs

Bring on October: Cubs ready to handle the playoff pressure

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Bring on October: Cubs ready to handle the playoff pressure

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.”

[RELATED: Belief in young players pays off for Cubs]

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.”

[WATCH: Maddon 'eager' to see Wrigley's playoff atmosphere]

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.”

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

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USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

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AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

 

Sosa went down and golfed a pitch out for his 36th homer on July 17, 1998. He smacked Marlins reliever Kirt Ojala's (who??) pitch just over the wall in center field at Pro Player Stadium for a 2-run shot that closed out the Cubs' scoring in a 6-1 victory.

 

The blast accounted for Sosa's 88th and 89th of the season. By comparison, Javy Baez currently leads the Cubs (and the National League) with 72 RBI on July 17, 2018.

 

Steve Trachsel tossed a complete game for the Cubs in the victory that day and Sosa finished with the only extra-base hits for either team (he also had a double).

 

Fun fact: Former Cub Ryan Dempster started the game for the Marlins, but lasted just 4.1 innings to run his season record to 1-4 with a 6.70 ERA.