Pressure? These Cubs smashed that playoff narrative into pieces, shrugging off the weight of franchise history like it’s nothing.
Pressure? It’s not like these Cubs grew up in the Chicago suburbs, idolizing Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and seeing the 1969 team collapse. They’re not from the generation that sat around college dorm rooms and Lakeview bars watching the 2003 team unravel, only five outs away from the World Series.
Pressure? Try playing for the Cuban junior national team, understanding that you had to produce to keep your spot for the next high-profile tournament, not knowing if you would ever get another chance to make an impression on the scouts in the stands. And then making the life-changing decision that would impact your entire family.
That’s a window into Jorge Soler’s world, the nerves it took to get to this point, the Cubs riding a wave of momentum into the National League Championship Series that begins Saturday night against the Mets at Citi Field.
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Theo Epstein’s front office couldn’t have predicted Soler beginning his postseason career by getting on base in each of his first nine plate appearances, because no one in major-league history had ever done that before.
But the Cubs always believed an outfielder built more like an NFL linebacker possessed the unique combination of power (two homers), patience (six walks) and presence (that Game 4 throw to home plate) you saw against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“This is why we do what we do,” said Louie Eljaua, the team’s director of international operations. “Our scouts are out there beating the bushes, in the trenches, to find guys that are going to help us win championships.
“He’s really come to life here and performed in a big way on the biggest stage possible.”
Eljaua watched it up close this week at Wrigley Field as the Cubs invited scouts and player-development staffers from around the world – including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama and Colombia – to see the payoff for all their hard work behind the scenes.
Soler, 23, is part of a larger story about The Cubs Way and how this franchise is positioned to be a perennial playoff contender. (The hunt never stops: CBS Sports reported the Cubs and San Francisco Giants are waiting for Major League Baseball to decide which team has an agreement with Cuban outfielder Eddy Julio Martinez.)
Remember, Soler missed roughly two years of game action during the odyssey that saw him defect from Cuba, train in the Dominican Republic, establish residency in Haiti and finally gain clearance to sign in the United States.
Soler still hasn’t played a full season of professional baseball yet and had only 151 minor-league games on his resume heading into this year.
“There’s been some bumps along the way with injuries and whatnot,” Eljaua said. “But he’s resilient enough to make adjustments, learn, continue to put together good at-bats and grow from that.
“The ceiling is still very high. He’s scratching the surface right now with what we expect him to do. It’s really scary to think that there’s more room and there’s more upside.”
Eljaua grew up in Miami, the son of Cuban parents, breaking into the business with the Florida Marlins, where he worked with future Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and helped find a future World Series MVP (Livan Hernandez) and Triple Crown winner (Miguel Cabrera).
While working for the Boston Red Sox, Eljaua and Epstein had once put the full-court press on another Cuban pitcher at a hotel in Nicaragua, thinking they had Jose Contreras locked up until the New York Yankees swooped in with a bigger offer to join the Evil Empire.
Signing Soler became a priority within the first months of the Epstein administration in Chicago, the Cubs looking for long-term building blocks and a new labor deal changing the rules of engagement on the international market.
Chairman Tom Ricketts even took time to meet with Soler’s camp during a trip to the Dominican Republic, the Cubs guaranteeing $30 million in the summer of 2012.
“When we go out there and identify players and sign the guys we sign, we do it with the intent of them coming to Chicago and helping us win,” Eljaua said. “We try to identify specific guys and scout not just ability – but makeup and talent and fortitude and all that – because it takes a different cat to play here.
“It’s kind of like Boston, New York. To be able to handle the grind, to be able to perform on this stage, to be able to deal with what they deal with on a daily basis playing here – and then to enjoy it and continue to do it and be disciplined enough to do it is (difficult).
“You have to tip your cap to a lot of different people that had a hand in this, from Tom Ricketts to our scouts to Theo.”
Eljaua remembered Soler standing out as a teenager at an international tournament in Venezuela – where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado played for Team USA – and looking like he belonged with those future All-Stars.
Soler opened eyes again in 2010 with his performance at the World Junior Baseball Championship in Canada, perhaps a preview for how he would respond in October.
“He was always about baseball,” Eljaua said. “He wasn’t really distracted with other things as far as like what kind of car he was going to buy or how big a house he was going to get.
“I always try to get in their heads: What do you want to do when you sign? What’s your first objective?
“He was always about family. He was always about baseball. He was always about getting to the States. And from the time we’ve signed him, he’s been appreciative of that.”
To be honest, Soler probably had a disappointing regular season (10 homers, 47 RBI), at least compared to Kris Bryant’s Rookie of the Year campaign and Anthony Rizzo’s MVP-level performance.
Soler missed time with a sprained ankle and a strained oblique, playing in 101 games and getting 400-plus plate appearances, leading to more questions about his ability to stay healthy and whether or not he’d be ready in time for the playoffs.
But Soler already answered that question in October: Pressure? What pressure?