PHOENIX – Men vs. Boys.
That’s how Dale Sveum summed up the four-game beatdown the Cubs got from the Washington Nationals in D.C. in September 2012, when there appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
The Plan won’t be something so far off in the distance when the Cubs return to Wrigley Field on Memorial Day as a wild-card leader, even after Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
The Cubs didn’t clean up during this 3-3 road trip through San Diego and Phoenix. It again exposed the defense (eight errors). It led to questions about closer Hector Rondon and a shaky bullpen. It saw the end of an 0-for-31 streak while hitting with runners in scoring position. All these issues won’t disappear overnight.
But the buzz is still building. The national TV networks want a piece of the Cubs again. Sports Illustrated already did a feature on Kris Bryant. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin have been hanging around the team.
Now the Cubs can see how good they really are during this six-game homestand. The Nationals – a World Series team on paper – are coming to the North Side. The Kansas City Royals – the defending American League champs – will be the second act.
“Bring it on,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure the place will be raucous.”
Sveum, the ex-manager, will be there with the Royals as their hitting coach, and he must be wondering about the type of job he could have done in Wrigleyville with $155 million lefty Jon Lester fronting the rotation and All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo maturing into an MVP candidate.
Even Maddon admits a lot of the heavy lifting had been done before he left the Tampa Bay Rays, signed a five-year, $25 million contract and offered to buy everyone at The Cubby Bear a shot and a beer. The Cubs are 24-19 on Memorial Day weekend and you probably would have taken that back in spring training.
“We’ve been aware that we have a tough schedule coming up,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “But I think we approach games with equal importance, regardless of who the opponent is, because we know that at the end of the day, every one counts. We’ve seen several times how seasons can come down to that final four or five days determining who gets in and who’s going home.
“But it’s kind of a measuring stick with a team like Washington. Kansas City has continued to grow and get better as a team. It’s going to be an exciting couple series at home for us. We know what we have to do to win, and we’ll be ready.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
A young lineup that leads the majors in strikeouts will have to face Washington’s nasty rotation – Tanner Roark, Jordan Zimmermann, Max Scherzer – before dealing with Kansas City’s nightmare bullpen.
“This will be a good test for us,” Bryant said. “It should be fun. It’s always good to see how you fare against the top guys in the league. I’m excited for the challenge and look forward to it.”
The Nationals notched 96 victories last season and then signed Scherzer, a Cy Young Award winner, to a seven-year, $210 million megadeal. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, a Chicago guy, reshaped the franchise through the top of the draft, gutsy trades and targeted free-agent signings.
The Cubs are running a few years behind the Nationals in their rebuild, but that’s essentially how the Theo Epstein administration is trying to construct a sustainable 90-game winner at Clark and Addison.
“I always like playing good teams,” Maddon said. “I always believe that’s going to bring out the best in your team. That’s the part I’ve always enjoyed about playing good teams. And I also think with young teams that are getting better, they need to see that kind of competition to really get to that level you’re looking for them to get to.”
This week we’ll see just how close – or far away – the Cubs are from being real contenders.