Sports Illustrated splashed the Cubs across another regional cover, this time calling them “The Last Great American Sports Story.” There’s Javier Baez, arms raised in triumph, about to jump onto home plate and into the awaiting mosh pit after a walk-off win on Mother’s Day at Wrigley Field.
Sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals – two battle-tested, playoff-caliber teams the Cubs might face in October – heightened the delirious feelings out in the bleachers, on social media and within certain segments of the media.
But Theo Epstein’s job is to ignore the hype and prepare for the crash, especially when the president of baseball operations watches a 25-6 team exceed even the sky-high preseason expectations.
“This is not baseball reality,” Epstein said before Tuesday’s 8-7 victory over the San Diego Padres. “Baseball reality is it’s really hard to win a single major-league game. That’s why we celebrate it so much.”
The Cubs are handling all phases of the game right now and must be wearing out the new Celebration Room in their tricked-out clubhouse, getting to the middle of May without back-to-back losses and pushing their run differential to plus-103.
The National League’s deepest, most patient lineup knocked out a rookie starter (Cesar Vargas) after four innings and 92 pitches, generating 12 hits and five walks against an overmatched last-place team. Jon Lester (4-1, 1.96 ERA) didn’t have his best stuff and had to grind through six innings, but he pieced together another quality start for a rotation that began the day leading the majors with a 2.26 ERA.
The night before a doubleheader, star manager Joe Maddon pulled the bullpen levers, using six different relievers, including Pedro Strop (who got Matt Kemp to fly out to right field with the bases loaded to end the seventh inning) and Hector Rondon (now 7-for-7 in save chances with 20 strikeouts against 41 batters faced). It looked like a much closer game than it actually felt after pinch-hitter Alex Dickerson hit a grand slam off Adam Warren with two outs in the eighth inning.
“We know we’re in a stretch right now where winning seems far easier than it actually is,” Epstein said. “We know there’s going to be a stretch – probably a long stretch this year – where winning even one game seems virtually impossible. That’s just the nature of baseball. We’re not blinded by it.
“We’ve been saying in the office: ‘We’re in a tree right now.’ We want to stay up there as long as we can, but we’re going to get down at some point.”
The Cubs didn’t stop after shocking the baseball world last year, winning 97 games and two playoff rounds and then doubling down by spending almost $290 million on free agents. The trade deadline won’t be a time to be cautious and worry too much about the future when this team has a chance to make history.
“We still have vulnerabilities,” Epstein said. “We still have areas where we need to get better. We still have challenges and more adversity to come. We’re going to suffer injuries. We’re going to suffer downturns in performance. We’re going to be stretched thin. We’re going to go through stretches of bad luck. We’re going to go through stretches of bad performance. We’re going to run into really hot teams.
“We want to stay as locked in as we are right now. But the game is very humbling and we’re aware that time is coming when there are going to be great challenges. And we almost look forward to it, because I think that’s when you find out what you’re made of.”
Where last season felt like a joyride for a front office that projected around 85 wins if everything broke right, a group of rookies that didn’t know any better and a $155 million pitcher who expected 2016 to be the year where the Cubs went all-in, only a World Series title will satisfy them now.
“Baseball karma is real,” Epstein said. “When you see some of the stuff written about us in the winter, and you see some of the World Series odds and things like that for a team that is a defending third-place team and hasn’t done anything yet, and there are some individuals who haven’t proven they can accomplish certain things back-to-back seasons, and we’re still a losing team during my tenure overall in Chicago (322-357), you get uncomfortable.
“Hopefully, at the end of the year, we’ll look up and say: ‘Hey, we earned what people are saying about us.’”