ST. LOUIS – You should already know this by now, but these aren’t the same old Cubs. They might be too young and too inexperienced to win it all this year, but don’t pretend they’re too tight or too tense to wreck the St. Louis Cardinals’ playoff hopes.
The tortured-history stuff and handle-the-pressure storylines are tired now, good space-fillers for the national media, but not really rooted in reality anymore.
The Cubs escaped Busch Stadium with a split after Saturday’s 6-3 Game 2 victory, the end of a champagne-soaked road trip that saw them beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild-card game and grab the momentum in this historic best-of-five division series.
“We don’t plan on coming back here,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “We can’t. We plan on playing a good game on Monday. Obviously, we’re very confident. But we want to do this now.”
Cardinal Nation had already been looking for the flaws beneath a 100-win team, and now the St. Louis lineup will have to deal with a modern-day Bob Gibson on Monday at Wrigley Field.
Jake Arrieta is ready and waiting for Game 3, and it’s been 11 weeks since the Cubs lost a “Snake” start, when it took Cole Hamels throwing a no-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Did all the pressure just shift back onto the Cardinals?
“It’s going to be a tough task,” Arrieta said. “But the same goes for us. This is kind of what we envisioned at the start of the season. And now we’re here.”
At times, the Cardinals looked like the Cubs during the dark days of the rebuild – rattled, indecisive, in a hurry. This is how the Cardinals beat teams inside Busch Stadium, playing small ball when necessary, pouncing on mistakes and staying cool under pressure.
Jaime Garcia’s brain freeze led to five unearned runs in the second inning. The Game 2 starter fielded Kyle Hendricks’ sacrifice bunt, turned away from the play at home plate and threw wildly to first base, maybe giving Cubs fans Matt Garza flashbacks.
Garcia ultimately left the game after two innings with what the Cardinals called a stomach virus, creating more questions about an iffy rotation that’s already been hit with injuries.
The Cubs are still a flawed, interesting team without much margin for error in the postseason. But they have the perfect manager in Joe Maddon, who always uses his pregame news conferences to send messages to his team, believing his words filter back into the clubhouse.
“The fans should always worry,” Maddon said before Game 2, repeating back the end of the question. “It’s always the prerogative of a fan to worry. I absolutely believe in that. That’s what barrooms are for. That’s what little forums are for online in this 21st-century stuff. The fans should always worry. I’m always about fans worrying. Go ahead and worry as much as you’d like.
“From our perspective, we have to just go out and play the game like we always do. I’m here to tell you, man, I just can’t live that way. The line I’ve used is I don’t vibrate at that frequency. It has nothing to do with anything. It really doesn’t.”
It’s not like the Cardinals – with those 11 World Series titles and so much muscle memory in the postseason – will concede anything against Arrieta or fold because the Cubs manager enjoys being The Most Interesting Man in the World in the interview room.
But the Cubs won’t get down if the Cardinals take an early lead in Game 3 or played scared if they do have to come back here for a do-or-die situation on Thursday at Busch Stadium.
“The process is fearless,” Maddon said. “If you want to always live your life just based on the outcome, you’re going to be fearful a lot. And when you’re doing that, you’re really not living in a particular moment.
“I’m 60, I’ll be 80, and if by the time I’m 80 20 years from now I’ve just been worried about outcomes, I’m going to miss a lot. So you’ve really got to get involved in the process. And from our players’ perspective, that’s all I talk about. I’ve not even mentioned about winning one time to these guys during this whole time.
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
“It’s just about…if you take care of the seconds, the minutes, the hours in a day take care of themselves. So for our fans back home, please go ahead and be worried. That’s OK. But understand that from our perspective in the clubhouse, we’re more worried about the process than the outcome.”
Think it will be loud in Wrigleyville on Monday? After sitting through five straight fifth-place seasons and paying some of the highest ticket prices in baseball, Cubs fans haven’t watched a home playoff game in seven years.
The Cubs haven’t won a playoff game at Wrigley Field since the beginning of the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins.
The Cubs have been playing at Clark and Addison since 1916 and have never clinched a playoff series at Wrigley Field.
“Well, there’s never been a team like this before,” Rizzo said. “We have something here – something special – so we just got to keep it going.”