Cubs

Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins

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Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins

MILWAUKEE – Playoffs? Joe Maddon almost sounded like he had been pregaming a little too hard before his first press conference at The Cubby Bear last November.

And then the new Cubs manager offered to buy everyone the first round The Hazleton Way – a shot and a beer – at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee. Whatever, forget it, he’s rolling.  

But this party will continue into October, the Cubs finishing an unbelievable regular season with 97 wins after Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

As crazy as that would have sounded at the beginning of spring training – when Maddon kept talking about the playoffs, man – how about that only being good enough for third place in the National League Central?

The Pittsburgh Pirates finally clinched home-field advantage for the wild-card game on Sunday, beating the Cincinnati Reds 4-0 to notch their 98th win.

So the Cubs will fly to Pittsburgh on Monday, work out at PNC Park on Tuesday and start potential Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta on Wednesday against Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA) and a Pittsburgh team that’s been hardened by earning three postseason appearances in the last three years.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta could be unstoppable in October]

“Obviously, the adrenaline’s going to run a little more,” Anthony Rizzo said. “But I think we’re ready for it. We played tough games against Pittsburgh all year – at their place, at our place – and we got Jake on the mound. We know when he’s out there, we’re a really, really loose bunch. We’re excited for it.”

Rizzo – who got his 100th and 101st RBIs with a bases-loaded single in the first inning – had stood in the same visiting clubhouse after Game 162 last season and said it was finally time to compete. 

That was before Maddon escaped from his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, Jon Lester signed a $155 million megadeal to make history in Chicago and Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber made their big-league debuts.

The All-Star first baseman then predicted a division title during a stop at a local elementary school leading up to Cubs Convention. The St. Louis Cardinals won the Central, but this is still a 24-game improvement from 2014.

“I just had a feeling that this was going to be a good year,” Rizzo said. “I obviously said it in January. But we just raised our bar. The bar is set from here on out – to keep repeating this.”

[ALSO: Motte trying to get back to Cubs for playoffs]

The Cubs watched Arrieta develop into a 22-game winner and finish with the lowest post-All-Star break ERA in major-league history (0.75). Bryant became an All-Star and had a Rookie of the Year season with 26 homers and 99 RBI.

Dexter Fowler had a sensational walk year, scoring 102 runs and filling holes at the top of the order and in center field. Hector Rondon – the Rule 5 guy – saved 30 games and put up a 1.67 ERA. 

“I’m really hoping or anticipating that our guys are going to be the same,” Maddon said. “That’s why I preach it all year long – I want us to play the same game. We’re not going to do anything differently.

“There’s not going to be anything new to put in there. There’s no new packages. We’re not running a new offense. We’re not going to blitz any more. No 3-4 (defense). Please don’t do anything differently. Just go play.”

The Cubs have gone 46-19 since getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the Philadelphia Phillies, the worst team in baseball, finding another gear that Theo Epstein’s front office didn’t see coming in Year 4 of the rebuild. 

The Cubs won 34 one-run games this year, 23 in their last at-bat and 13 in a walk-off celebration, showing mental toughness and pitch-to-pitch focus for a goofy bunch that likes to rub helmets and have dance parties in the clubhouse.

The Cubs closed with an eight-game winning streak and a real sense of momentum knowing Arrieta will stare down the Pirates in a one-game playoff. 

[SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

“We like our chances,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “We feel good about it. Everybody is pulling in one direction, believing. And that’s a powerful thing when you got millions and millions of fans and players and personnel all believing we can pull this thing off.

“We’re on a good roll. We just want to keep rolling. All we want to know is if it’s a day game or a night game.” 

It will be a 7 p.m. CST start on Wednesday in Pittsburgh and we’ll see how this group responds under the bright lights of October. The Cubs essentially had identical records at Wrigley Field (49-32) and on the road (48-33) this year and have an anytime/anywhere attitude with Arrieta on the mound.  

After finishing in fifth place five times during his first five seasons, making three All-Star teams, losing his job at shortstop and moving to second base without complaint, Starlin Castro might appreciate this more than anybody else inside the clubhouse.

“We worked so hard to be good,” Castro said. “And now is the time. Just keep showing it.”

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

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USA TODAY

Glanville: Fall to Spring - A player’s offseason changes meaning with each changing season

A few weeks after the we (the Cubs) were eliminated from the 2003 playoffs, I got a phone call from my college professor. Since it was officially the off-season, I was in the early stages of a break from following a pocket schedule to tell me where to be every day for nearly eight months.

But this was a man I could not refuse. I chose my college major to go into his field of transportation engineering and he was calling because he needed a teaching assistant to accompany him on his trip to South Africa.

One minute I could barely move off of my couch in my Chicago apartment after losing Game 7 against the Marlins. The next minute, I would be standing within miles of the Southern most point in Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Why not? I needed the distraction so I agreed to go.

The offseason is its own transition. Leaving the regimen of routine, of batting practice and bus times, to an open ended world that you have to re-learn again. When I finished my first full major league season in 1997, I lived in Streeterville at the Navy Pier Apartments.

That offseason, I decided to stay an extra month in Chicago only to wake up panicked for the first two weeks because I thought I was missing stretch time for a home day game. A major league schedule becomes etched in your DNA after a while.

It is also a time that you get to reflect. The regular season does not give you a moment to really get perspective on what was just accomplished, what it all means, what you would change. I always joked about the T-shirt I wanted to a sell that listed all of the things a major league player figures out during the off-season. From the perfect swing to the ex-girlfriend you need to un-break-up with next week.

It all becomes so clear when a 96 MPH fastball isn’t coming at you.

For years, I would arrange a training program to follow, but I quickly learned that I had to mix it up. There was only so much repetition I could stand in the off-season. So some years, I moved to the site of spring training and worked out early with the staff, other years I found a spot at home where I grew up or wherever I played during the season, to train.

I was single when I played, but now with a family, I have a better understanding of the challenges my teammates would express as they were re-engaging as a daily father again after this long absentee existence.

To keep it fresh and spicy, when I got older in the game, I enrolled in a dance studio and took a winter of dance lessons. Salsa, Foxtrot, Rumba, you name it. On Thursdays we had to dance for an hour straight, changing partners in the room every song change. Dancing with the Stars had nothing on me.

Of course, not every offseason is fun and games. There were years when I wasn’t sure I would have a job the next year, or I was in the throes of a trade rumor. In 1997, I was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies two days before Christmas. In 2002, my father passed away on the last game of the season, leading the offseason to be a time of mourning.

By my final season in 2005, I thought I was officially on my couch forever. I was going to fade away into oblivion like many players do. No fanfare, the phone just would stop ringing and I would just let the silence wash over me. The Yankees had called earlier in that off-season, acting like they were doing me a favor which I turned down, then they called back later with a more open tone, seeing me as a potential key piece in their outfield with Bernie Williams slowing down quite a bit at that point.

I did get off that couch for that call, only to get released the last week of camp, so I was back on the couch, with a fiancé and some extra salt in the wounds after that final meeting with Brian Cashman and Joe Torre, who boxed me into the coaches office to tell me I was released. Released? Come on. Never had that happen before.

The Cubs players will go through all of this if they have the good fortune of playing a long time. The wave of uncertainty, the meaning of age in this game spares no one. Each offseason is a time to reset, a period where you get away, seemingly adrift from the game, then as spring gets closer, the shoreline comes up in the horizon once again, magnetically drawing you to its shores for another season.

Amazingly, you don’t always know your age and what it has done to your body. 34 can’t be that old, right? I can still run, or throw 95. Then those 23-year-olds in camp are the wake up call, or maybe you are that 23-year-old and can’t believe your locker is next to Ryne Sandberg’s.

Then you blink, and you are advising Jimmy Rollins about etiquette and realize you have become that guy, the seasoned vet, preaching about locker room respect.

For the 2018 Cubs, they fell short of their goal to repeat their 2016 magic. Failed to meet their singular destination that meant success over all else. Yet, those who come back for 2019, will not be the same player, the same person, that left the locker room at the close this season. They will have grown, changed, aged, wizened up, rehabbed, hardened. All of which means that new perspective is the inevitable part of this time off, whether you like it or not.

Baseball is a game that has this unique dynamic. The highest intensity rhythm of any sport. Every day you are tested. You are pushed to the brink by sheer attrition. According to my teammate Ed Smith, who was playing third base at the time when Michael Jordan reached third, Jordan, after playing well over 100 games in a row, said to him “Man, I have never been this tired in my entire life.”

The grind.

Then it stops on a dime. Season over. Only on baseball’s terms.

But you may be granted another spring. Another crack at it. Until one day, the baseball winter never ends and its time for you to plant your own spring.

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Remember that guy? Former Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutiérrez

Ricky Gutiérrez played in the Majors from 1993-2004. He played shortstop for the Cubs from 2000-01 and later signed with them again in June 2004. 

However, Gutiérrez never got back to the Majors with the Cubs, who sent him to the Red Sox the following month. His final Major League game was with the Red Sox on Oct. 3, 2004, the final game of the 2004 regular season; he didn’t play in the 2004 postseason. Gutiérrez was subsequently signed and released by a few other teams, including the White Sox in 2005.

Gutiérrez holds the distinction of being the first Cubs player to hit a regular season grand slam against the White Sox (July 12, 2001). In his two seasons with the Cubs, he tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts both years (16 in 2000, 17 in 2001) which was odd since he had a grand total of 18 sacrifice bunts in his 847 career games NOT in a Cubs uniform. He also had uncharacteristic power with the Cubs:  21 home runs for Chicago in 272 games, 17 home runs with everyone else (847 games).

What Cubs fans probably remember most is what Gutiérrez did against them. On May 6, 1998 he had the lone hit (many dispute it should have been ruled an error) for the Astros off Kerry Wood in Wood’s 20-strikeout masterpiece at Wrigley Field (Gutiérrez was responsible for two of the strikeouts). 

Later that season, on June 26, the number 20 and Gutiérrez were again connected when he had a 20-pitch battle against Bartolo Colón, which ended in a strikeout. It remained the last plate appearance in the Majors of at least 20 pitches until Brandon Belt flew out on the 21st pitch of an at-bat against the Angels' Jaime Barria on April 22, 2018.

Gutiérrez’s nephew, James Jones, played 14 seasons in the NBA for the Pacers, Suns, Trail Blazers, Heat and Cavaliers.