SAN FRANCISCO – The Cubs are built as a team of checks and balances, blunt veterans who didn’t come here for a haircut and young players acting like they’ve been here forever. A thumping American League-style lineup has the mix-and-match parts to play the National League game. An elite defensive unit works in concert with the pitching staff. The Geek Department supports Joe Maddon’s coaching staff. An Ivy League front office nailed so many decisions through scouting and intuition.
Still, the best team in baseball, a 103-win machine during the regular season, encountered the broad message Maddon sent during his pre-playoffs meeting: Things will go wrong.
Meaning the Cubs will be defined by how they react to bad calls, bad bounces, bad performances, nonstop scrutiny and hostile environments. This team didn’t sulk or panic during the NL Division Series, responding to the awesome challenge presented by the San Francisco Giants, showing how to keep surviving and advancing through October.
“You’re going to have to scramble for some wins if you’re going to win in the postseason,” general manager Jed Hoyer said late Tuesday night amid the celebration on the West Coast, standing soaking wet in the middle of AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse.
“Things aren’t going to go right. Obviously, Game 1 went perfect. You get eight innings out of Jon (Lester). That’s great. That doesn’t happen all the time. You got to be able to scramble in the postseason.”
The Cubs needed only four games to eliminate a Giant franchise that has the confidence and muscle memory from winning World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
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Even with two extremely reliable starting pitchers – Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey – not lasting beyond the fourth inning in Games 2 and 4. And superstar closer Aroldis Chapman blowing the six-out save in what became a 13-inning loss in Game 3.
Together, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant committed five errors. Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell combined went 4-for-45 (.089 average) with one extra-base hit. Up until that ninth-inning rally in Game 4, pitchers Hendricks, Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta drove in almost half of the team’s runs during the NLDS.
“It shows that it doesn’t have to be the MVP candidate in Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo to win us the ballgame every night,” Arrieta said. “Guys step up, like Javy (Baez). It’s a timely hit from Kyle, a huge home run from Travis. Everybody contributes.
“To be able to have that contribution from up and down the order versus just a couple of guys really makes us a dangerous ballclub.
“If certain guys get pitched around, we know the guys behind them can handle the task of providing offense and (helping pick them up). It’s just really nice to see the growth (and) continued development of these young players at such a high level on such a big stage.”
Baez changed the entire direction of this NLDS with one swing in the eighth inning of Game 1, reacting to a Johnny Cueto quick pitch and launching it out toward Waveland Avenue. The wind knocked the ball down before it landed in the Wrigley Field basket instead of Angel Pagan’s glove, the difference in a 1-0 game.
The Plan can think of everything – every possible matchup, variable and contingency – but there is still an element of luck. Ben Zobrist – an influential player on the Kansas City Royals team that won last year’s World Series – put it this way: “Any time you’re in tight games and you’re playing against good teams, you have to get breaks.”
But the bullpen also backed up the shortened Hendricks and Lackey starts by limiting the Giants to two runs across 10-plus innings, securing a Game 2 win and keeping the Cubs within striking distance for that Game 4 comeback.
Chapman – the kind of high-octane reliever the Giants failed to acquire at the trade deadline – notched three saves. Baez – who doesn’t even have a set position on a team this talented – made so many defensive plays look easy that his human-highlight-film reputation is going national.
The Cubs can now line up Lester for another tone-setting Game 1 against either the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series that begins Saturday night at Wrigley Field.
What can possibly go wrong? The Cubs still have so many different ways to weather two more postseason rounds and win eight more games.
“They play for one another,” bench coach Dave Martinez said. “Every day, it’s somebody different.”