PITTSBURGH — Jonathan Herrera walked into PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon wearing a homemade rally helmet with two detached hands glued on top, capturing the spontaneous celebration/inside joke the Cubs have turned into a signature move.
The Cubs are only guaranteed nine more innings this season, but this still feels like the opening of a competitive window for a core group of young players and what has been a sleeping-giant franchise.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a well-run, small-market team playing in the National League wild-card game for the third year in a row. The Pirates haven’t won a playoff series since their 1979 World Series title.
Which team will feel more pressure on Wednesday night?
“It’s certainly not on us,” said Anthony Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman who’s been such a huge building block for the Cubs. “We don’t feel any pressure.”
Of course, the Cubs have 1908, the Billy Goat curse, Bartman and a star manager who has zero interest in talking about the past.
“Cubs history is wonderful,” Joe Maddon said. “The tradition of being a Chicago Cub, I think, is outstanding. And I’m talking about players, the ballpark, the city and (everything) attached to that.
“Superstition, for me, has no place in Cubs history or tradition. If you choose to vibrate there, that’s your concern. For our guys, it’s about playing winning baseball every night. And that’s it.
“I don’t want them to get caught up in stuff that really doesn’t matter. I want us to be more process-oriented as opposed to outcome-oriented. And if you really focus on today, that other stuff really should not matter.”
Jon Lester won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox, but he doesn’t remember a ballpark louder than Kauffman Stadium during last year’s American League wild-card game. As a hired-gun for the Oakland A’s, Lester got a no-decision in a game the Royals would win in 12 innings, pushing them toward the World Series.
“Tomorrow is just a different animal,” Lester said before Tuesday’s workout. “It’s so unique. It’s do or die. You’re trying to get your home-field advantage, and these guys are rocking from Pitch 1.”
The young Cubs can talk about it all they want, Lester said, but they still won’t know what it’s like until they actually experience a real playoff environment.
“The game doesn’t change,” Lester said. “The fastball down and away that you locate works just the same as it does (in) Game 7 of the World Series as it does on April 15th. That doesn’t change.
“It’s just now you’ve got a little more adrenaline. You’ve got the buzz of the crowd (being) a little louder. The ramifications for bad pitches matter a little bit more. Your heart rate is going to be a little higher in that first inning. After that, you should be able to settle right back in and just go about your business.”
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Lester remembered standing in this same clubhouse in early August and saying how he became a big believer in “playing stupid.”
Lester noticed how Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams played loose and came across as naïve during that shocking run to the 2008 World Series, seeing the same qualities developing here.
“I like playing dumb,” Lester said. “I like going in and not knowing what to expect and just try to play baseball. Dumb it down the best you can to: ‘Hey, we need to get three outs.’ Or: ‘We need to make this pitch.’
“The quicker you can do that, the easier it is to handle the adrenaline and handle the atmosphere and handle everything that’s going on around you.
“I’m not worried about them chanting whatever. You give up a leadoff double and the stands are going crazy, you’re worried about executing the next pitch and not letting that guy get to third. Dumb it down.”