The Cubs are going to need a bigger target. Just imagine the circus atmosphere and suffocating expectations when Joe Maddon’s team reports to spring training next year in Arizona – either as the defending World Series champs or after coming agonizingly close without winning the franchise’s first title in 108 years.
Both of those possibilities are still in play after a gutsy 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians on Oct. 30 – the latest the Cubs have ever played a game at Wrigley Field in franchise history. The Cubs went into Game 5 with one primary thought in mind: Just get back to Cleveland.
Maddon managed with a sense of urgency, pulling big-game pitcher Jon Lester after 90 pitches, trusting rookie reliever Carl Edwards Jr. for two batters in the seventh inning and using superstar closer Aroldis Chapman to get the last eight outs.
With last year’s Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) lined up to start Tuesday night on extra rest, this season’s ERA leader (Kyle Hendricks) positioned to start a Game 7 if necessary and Kyle Schwarber ready to change the entire complexion of this lineup as the designated hitter at Progressive Field, the Cubs are set up for either an epic comeback or a massive disappointment.
“Again, it doesn’t matter,” Maddon said. “It really doesn’t matter. From Day 1, we’ve been engulfed, surrounded, inundated with these thoughts. And my guys have handled it great. You cannot handle it any better, I don’t think, than our guys have handled it.
“I don’t think there’s any Cub fan throughout the universe actually that would not be happy with where we’re at – at this particular moment – based on what’s occurred over the last century and over the last several years.”
The last time the Cubs faced an elimination game, Maddon invited Simon the Magician to perform in the Wrigley Field clubhouse. That idea sounded more like a manager running out of ideas with his team down 3-0 in last year’s National League Championship Series.
Except for the Chapman move, Maddon didn’t pull anything out of his bag of tricks with the Cubs down 3-1 in the World Series, knowing that the New York Mets and all their power pitchers posed different problems than a Cleveland team built around a No. 1 starter (Corey Kluber) and a deep, versatile bullpen that has covered up so many holes in the roster.
Plus, the 2016 team is a year older and a year wiser, with so much more across-the-board talent and a $155 million ace on the mound. The Cubs (obviously) made batting practice optional and instructed their players to be dressed by 5:30 p.m. for a 7:17 first pitch.
“No magicians,” Maddon said. “The guys have been fine all year. I don’t want to confuse things out there right now. There were moments last year where I thought it was necessary. Right now, I think they’re able to stand on their own without all the diversions.
“Bill Murray was walking around here yesterday before the game though.”
The Cubs brought some of this upon themselves, from Maddon’s look-at-us stunts to John Lackey’s “didn’t come here for a haircut” act to Lester reminding everyone at various points in the season that this team hasn’t done anything yet.
But if the young Cubs looked like they were trying too hard in Games 3 and 4 – and feeling the enormity of Wrigley Field’s first World Series events in 71 years – then they settled down to win a tense Game 5.
“I really anticipate that we’re going to be able to finish this off,” Maddon said. “You still look at the steppingstones, the building blocks to get to this point. You can’t tell me last year wasn’t successful just getting to the (NLCS).
“You can’t tell me this year wasn’t successful getting to the World Series. I just don’t buy that kind of logic. You get to this moment and there are so many micro pockets that can occur. Like right now, we’re having a hard time with their pitching staff in a seven-game series. Over the course of 162, you can absorb those moments and move on and get to the next team and right yourself.
“I’m not of that mindset at all that the winner-take-all is the successful one and the one that doesn’t is not.”
This might be remembered as the defining momentum swing, the Cubs starting to look like that 103-win team again. The heart of the order pieced together the big inning the Cubs needed in the fourth against Trevor Bauer, scoring three runs with a mixture of Bryzzo power (Kris Bryant homered into the left-center field bleachers before Anthony Rizzo settled for a double when his ball didn’t go over the right-field wall) and small-ball creativity (Ben Zobrist’s line-drive single, Addison Russell’s infield single, Javier Baez’s bunt, David Ross’ sacrifice fly).
Now some of that pressure the Cubs felt will shift onto the Indians. Two wins from baseball immortality? The Cubs would have taken that when the mimes and zoo animals showed up in spring training.
“Of course, the goal is to win it all,” Maddon said. “But there’s also the building component, the culture component, all the different things that permit you to be excellent on an annual basis that are now in place. All those things matter.”