The moment Theo Epstein knew Cubs would no longer fear Cardinals


The moment Theo Epstein knew Cubs would no longer fear Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – After a century of waiting, the Cubs won their first playoff series at Wrigley Field on October 13, 2015, unleashing so much energy that you could feel the press box shaking, hear the crowd deliriously chanting “LAC-KEY! LAC-KEY!” and sense the heated rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals would never be the same again.

“That was a really transformative moment for us,” Theo Epstein said. “That was the point at which we no longer feared them.”

Epstein spoke carefully before Tuesday night’s game at Busch Stadium, not wanting to jinx it or get too far ahead of himself, and the magic number to celebrate a second straight National League Central title would remain stuck at one with an 8-7 loss in front of 41,944. But Epstein didn’t need to be drenched in champagne and have a beer in his hand to appreciate how the Cubs have already shifted the balance of power in the division.  

After building two World Series teams for the Boston Red Sox and ending an 86-year championship drought that haunted New England, Epstein took over baseball operations at Clark and Addison with a “Baseball is Better” press conference on Oct. 25, 2011 that featured his name up in lights on the iconic marquee and a promise to build a scouting-and-player-development machine.

Three days later, the Cardinals won their 11th World Series title in the walk year for Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, giving Epstein a new Evil Empire to take down after his epic battles against the New York Yankees.

“When I think back to that time with the Red Sox,” Epstein said, “I remember with the Yankees when I first got there I felt like we kind of feared them a little bit. And then we were able to knock them off in ’04. It changed the dynamic a little bit, at least how we felt about them. We respected them, but didn’t fear them.

“I think, in a way, the same thing is happening with the Cardinals.”

Epstein feels like that 2015 NL Division Series is the one that gets overlooked while accounting for this golden age of baseball on the North Side. The Cubs have won 288 regular-season games since the beginning of the 2015 season, the franchise’s best three-year stretch in more than a century (300 wins between 1909 and 1911). Since 1940, the Cubs have only had two other runs with at least three consecutive winning campaigns: 1967-72 and 2007-09.

In beating the Cardinals, Anthony Rizzo validated his faith during the rebuilding years and Kyle Schwarber added to his legend by launching a ball onto a Wrigley Field video board. Young players like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Javier Baez developed their muscle memory in big games. Kyle Hendricks – who would get the ball in a World Series Game 7 for the ages – made his first career playoff start.

That postseason surge also helped underwrite an offseason spending spree on free agents that zoomed toward $290 million, landing World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, ex-Cardinal Jason Heyward, future Cardinal Dexter Fowler and John LAC-KEY, who gets to start a Big Boy Game on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, a place where The Cardinal Way doesn’t have the same intimidation factor anymore.

“When you can win a division with them in it, it means a lot,” Epstein said. “When you can get by them in the postseason, it means a lot, because they’re very successful at what they do.  

“We will always respect them. That’s what makes it meaningful to beat them and to do what we’ve done relative to them the last three years. But I think there’s no fear there.”

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

Javy Baez should be the frontrunner for NL MVP heading into the All-Star Break

If the season ended today, Javy Baez may be your National League MVP.

Of course, the season isn't ending today, only the first half of the 2018 campaign is.

He flashed his skills again over the weekend — scoring the game-winning run Friday, posting a 5-RBI game Saturday and then drove in the Cubs' first run in their 7-4 victory Sunday to close out a sweep of the Padres.

Entering the All-Star Break, Baez should be the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.

For starters, he's the best player on the best team in the league.

Thanks to a recent hot surge by the Cubs and an ugly weekend for the Brewers (who have lost 6 straight), Baez and Co. will go into the break with the best record in the NL. 

Baez, meanwhile, leads the Cubs in WAR and nearly every offensive category — OPS, slugging percentage, homers, RBI, runs scored, doubles, triples, total bases, stolen bases and hits.

And that's not even saying anything about his glovework at any position on the infield or dynamic baserunning.

He's on pace to become the first Cubs player to drive in 125 runs since Sammy Sosa in 2001.

Baez also is on track for a 30-30 season — something only Sosa accomplished in a Cubs uniform in 1993 and 1995. 

El Mago will enjoy his week in the Home Run Derby and as the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, but those shouldn't be the end of his accolades this year if he can find a way to keep this pace up in the second half.

What other NL candidate would be a better choice for the MVP right now?

Baez is tied for the league lead in RBI. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar is just behind Baez with 70 RBI, but he also has 70 fewer at-bats than the Cubs star due to a platoon to begin the year. 

Eugenio Suarez and Scooter Gennett are also having great years, but the Reds are nowhere close to a playoff spot. 

Nolan Arenado, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are also having very good seasons on teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, but how do you deny the best player on the league's best team?

After all, where would the Cubs be without Baez this season? 

Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have battled through injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness, the pitching staff has had all kinds of consistency/health woes and Willson Contreras has yet to find his power stroke at the plate.

At the very least, "El Mago" has been the most important player on the North Side of Chicago during the first 3.5 months of 2018.

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Nico Hoerner makes great catch in first game with South Bend

Cubs first-round pick Nico Hoerner made his debut with the Class-A South Bend Cubs, and he did not disappoint.

The 23-year old shortstop showed off impressive hops during an acrobatic grab in the topf of the second inning in his first game with the South Bend Cubs. Hoerner will surely be an exciting defensive prospect with ability like this.

As far as offense goes, through four at-bats at South Bend, Hoerner is batting .500, and this comes after he hit .318 with a home run and two RBI through seven games with the Eugene Emeralds, the Cubs Class A short-season affiliate.

Here is to hoping we continue to see big-time plays from Hoerner.