Can the Cubs halt the Giants' even-year magic?
Until proven otherwise, the San Francisco Giants are unstoppable in even years, and they proved it again with another superhuman performance from Madison Bumgarner in the National League wild-card game Wednesday night.
Bumgarner threw 119 pitches in a complete-game shutout in the Giants' 3-0 victory over the Mets in New York, extending his postseason shutout streak to 22 innings.
Now he and the Giants are on their way to Chicago, looking to take another step toward their fourth straight even-year championship after winning the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
That's no matter for the Cubs. They're already staring down a 108-year drought and more than a century rife with "curses" and postseason meltdowns.
The Cubs are only focused on themselves and taking care of their own business, with Joe Maddon referencing legendary basketball coach John Wooden Tuesday afternoon at Wrigley Field.
"Coach Wooden was never really concerned so much about his opposition as much as we he was concerned about his team doing what they do well," Maddon said. "For me, I really subscribe to that theory - let's worry about what we do well and make sure that we do and in turn, you have this other team that you're gonna play.
"You can scout them, you can react to that particular team, but the trap again is that you don't focus on what you do well first."
To a man, the Cubs claimed they weren't pulling for any one particular team to emerge from Wednesday's winner-take-all showdown.
Jason Heyward insisted he wouldn't watch the game live. Maddon said he refused to watch the wild-card contest while taking copious notes ("that's a bad way to live").
Miguel Montero brushed off any talk of "even-year magic" from the Giants.
"We don't even look at that," Montero said. "I don't even care who we're facing. Those guys that won three out of five; in a five-year span, they've got three championships. It's a good team. Two of the three, they were a wild-card team and won the whole thing.
"That's the one you can't sleep on - the wild card. We did it last year; we knocked the Cardinals out. You create some momentum from that. You don't want to take it for granted. Whoever you play, you want to go after the first game and go from there."
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
So how do the Cubs match up against the Giants in that first game and beyond?
2016 season series
The Cubs won four of the seven games against the Giants during the regular season, outscoring their Bay Area counterparts 23-17 in the process.
That included Bumgarner single-handedly beating Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs on national TV on Sunday, May 22, driving in the only run in a 1-0 ballgame.
It also included a four-game series at Wrigley Field over Labor Day weekend in which the Cubs won three games and limited Giants hitters to a measly .108 batting average (14-for-132).
The Cubs had a 1.94 ERA against the Giants in the seven regular-season games.
With Eduardo Nunez still nursing a hamstring injury, the Giants went with journeyman and former White Sox role player Conor Gillaspie at third base in the wild-card game Wednesday night.
Of course, we all know how that turned out.
Gillaspie's three-run homer sent the Mets home and gave Bumgarner yet another notch on his postseason belt.
Buster Posey and Hunter Pence anchor a professional lineup that refuses to give away any at-bats throughout the order.
Denard Span sets the table at the top with Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik and Angel Pagan rounding out the rest of the lineup. If Nunez can get past his hamstring issue, he poses by far the biggest threat on the basepaths.
The Giants don't have a ton of power (Belt led the team with 17 homers), but they wear down opposing pitchers and they know how to deliver in October. The core was here in '14 and Posey has been the heart and soul of the team for all three championships.
Conventional wisdom says Bumgarner will only be able to pitch one game in the NLDS.
After watching Bumgarner come out of the bullpen to throw five shutout innings in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, nothing would be shocking in this five-game series.
Beyond Superman, the Giants will trot out 18-game winner Johnny Cueto (2.79 ERA, 198 Ks) in Game 1 and then some combination of Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore after that.
Moore was the Giants' big acquisition at the trade deadline as they dealt away young third baseman Matt Duffy. (Of course, if Duffy was still in San Francisco, Gillaspie wouldn't've been starting at third base, so maybe there is something to that even-year magic?)
Samardzija, of course, came up through the Cubs system and has a knack for rising to the occasion when the lights are brightest. He undoubtedly will get up to face his old team.
Oh, and by the way, Bumgarner has an 0.50 ERA on the road in postseason history. Umm...
Here's where the Cubs have a clear advantage. The Giants' bullpen woes were the top storyline throughout the entire second half, at the forefront of the collapse that forced the Giants out of first place and into the wild-card crapshoot.
The Giants led all of baseball with 30 blown saves in the regular season, converting only 59 percent of their save opportunities.
Santiago Casilla went just 31-for-40 in save opportunities, but nobody else has emerged to claim the closer's role from him, with Sergio Romo, Hunter Strickland, Will Smith, Derek Law and Cory Gearrin all enduring struggles of their own down the stretch.
If the Giants bullpen can't figure it out, it could be their undoing in the NLDS.
Key to the series
Pay attention to the pitch count of the Giants starters. This Cubs lineup is relentless and has a knack for getting to the bullpen by the fifth or sixth inning.
If that holds up in the five-game series, the Cubs will be in a good spot.
That might seem obvious, but with the Giants' unstable bullpen, it becomes top thing to watch come Friday night.