On Monday morning, ESPN.com posted a story that asked: "Are .500 Cubs an Average Team?" That afternoon, the multi-screen wall in the hallway that leads from the Wrigley Field clubhouse to the home dugout showed an MLB Network segment comparing World Series hangovers between the Cubs and Cleveland Indians: "Which Team Are You More Concerned About Moving Forward?"
The Cubs can always answer those types of questions by flashing their championship bling and reminding everyone that they still have almost 92 percent of a 162-game schedule remaining.
If the Cubs didn't freak out about the possibility of facing Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and the even-year San Francisco Giants in an elimination game, or fold after a 21-inning scoreless streak against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, or panic down 3-1 in the World Series, then they won't sweat a four-game losing streak in the middle of April.
John Lackey didn't exactly storm into the interview room after a 6-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, turning to a Cubs media relations official as he sat down at the table and saying: "It beats working at Sears, huh?"
"It's too early to panic about anything right now," said Lackey, a three-time World Series champion. "We got, obviously, a lot of talent on this team and we'll just get into it a little bit here. The last 10 years or so, I kind of break the season up into quarters. Until you get to about 40, 50 games – we'll see where we're at then."
The 2016 Cubs played like a team on a mission, winning 25 of the season's first 31 games, building up a double-digit division lead in June and spending 180 days in first place. After the Pittsburgh Pirates swept a weekend series in Wrigleyville, Ryan Braun played the villain, getting booed before his first at-bat and then smashing a Lackey pitch into the left-field bleachers for a 2-0 lead in the first inning.
"People are going to come in here gunning for us, for sure," Lackey said. "We're the world champs, and people want to come in here and play well. We're going to have to match that intensity and play better."
The Brewers (8-6) found the video board sweet spot and launched three homers off Lackey on a night with 37-degree wind chill. Lackey barked at home plate umpire Carlos Torres in the third inning after an Eric Thames blast flew over the basket and bounced into the left-field bleachers, making it five games in a row with a home run for the slugger who reinvented himself in South Korea.
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After six innings, Lackey (1-2, 4.00 ERA) handed a 4-3 game over to a bullpen still taking shape. Mike Montgomery – who got the final out in a World Series Game 7 – couldn't keep it close in the eighth inning. What's supposed to be a shutdown defense got sloppy when Braun sprinted to steal third base and catcher Willson Contreras threw the ball into left field, allowing an insurance run to score.
"When you go 6-6 in the middle of the year, nobody notices," manager Joe Maddon said before the game. "You're going to see more consistent hitting as we move it along. Remember I talked about (how) it takes about a month to figure out your bullpen. We're still in the process of getting everybody comfortable out there.
"So I think as the hitting peaks a little bit more, which it will, and we really establish getting the bullpen guys comfortable, that's when we're really going to take off."
Whether it's reacting to Milwaukee's defense, looking for a spark or playing the long game against scouting reports, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo, two of the most dangerous hitters in the game, bunted on their own against the shift.
"There's no panic on our side at all," Schwarber said. "We know that we're a good baseball team and we'll bounce back."
The 2016 Cubs also looked completely winded after a 24-games-in-24-days stretch that ended in the middle of July. The 2017 Cubs already have the muscle memory and can look at their ring fingers if they ever need a reminder. But the rest of Major League Baseball has also noticed the victory tour. "Embrace The Target," right?
"I'm sure that we'll turn some things around," Schwarber said. "Obviously, when you're a competitor, you want to win. That's why we're out there – we want to win. Losing's not our strong suit, I guess you would say, as baseball players.
"Obviously, it stinks, but we have to turn the page. This happened to us last year right before the All-Star break. We hit the skids. So hopefully we're hitting it maybe early."