The Cubs and New York Mets endured the kind of slow, painful rebuilds that once would have been unthinkable for a big-market team.
But both franchises collected enough blue-chip talent that last year’s National League Championship Series felt more like the beginning than the end.
This is exactly the kind of potential rivalry Major League Baseball and its TV partners dream about – young stars, the world’s biggest media market and Wrigley Field as one of the backdrops.
So with the Cubs and Mets getting an Opening Day tune-up on Friday in Las Vegas, here are four takeaways from that four-game sweep last October:
• Don’t take it for granted: In the immediate aftermath of Game 4, Miguel Montero stood at his locker in the old Wrigley Field clubhouse and remembered being a rookie catcher on the 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks team that swept the Cubs, advanced to the NLCS and assumed that young core in the desert would be back for more.
“You can’t take it for granted,” Montero said. “You have to perform on the field. Obviously, for a lot of young guys, they thought it was easy to get there. Because they got to the big leagues and immediately they were there. So it’s like: ‘Well, how hard could it be?’ Especially now with this team: ‘How hard could it be?’
“You can’t take it for granted because it’s harder than it looked last year. So with that being said, my biggest advice is go out and play, take one game at a time and don’t take any other team like they’re not as good as you are. You got to play every team at your highest level in order to get to where you want to go.
“It’s easy to play a team with a (bad record) and you (show up) and they whip your ass. Because they’re all big-league players.”
• Get hot at the right time: The Cubs didn’t overreact to a four-game sample size. But the NLCS clearly highlighted some of the softer areas within a strong foundation.
The Cubs spent almost $290 million this offseason trying to upgrade the outfield defense (Jason Heyward), diversify the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and strengthen the rotation (John Lackey). The Mets also exposed those nagging issues with controlling the running game. Theo Epstein’s front office understands the coin-flip nature of the wild-card game.
“I thought the Mets played almost four perfect games against us,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I can’t imagine they could play a better four games – in all phases of the game. Their starting pitching was fantastic. They kept us off-balance. They scored in the first inning of four straight games to sort of put us on the defensive. Their defense played great. Their bullpen threw great.
“We didn’t play our best. But certainly we ran up against a team sort of playing as well as they could. And that happens. To me, it just underscores the value of winning your division.”
The Mets didn’t stay hot against the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. But the Cubs can’t just bank on the hottest pitcher in the world shutting down the Pittsburgh Pirates again, so they built a stronger, deeper team around Jake Arrieta.
“We won the one-game playoff,” Hoyer said. “But I think we’re realistic enough to realize that you go up against a great team like that on the road, you’re not going to win every one of those. The nature of that game makes you want to win the division.
“What you really want to be is the hot team. You make it every year, and you have much better odds of being that hot team that can sustain three straight series and win the title.”
• Xs and Os matter: The Cubs have built a strong scouting system that combines video, raw data and human intelligence. But Cubs officials credited the Mets for knowing the 2015 team inside and out, identifying and preying upon weaknesses.
“It still blows my mind,” pitcher Jon Lester said, “the game plan they (followed), attacking our guys soft so much and surprising us with the heater. We’re such a good fastball-hitting team that it’s hard to surprise us with heaters. They did an unbelievable job.
“Sometimes, you have to sit back and you have to just tip your hat. We got beat. They beat us. They had a better game plan – and they executed a little bit better than we did.”
The Cubs hit .164 as a team, struck out 37 times and never led at any point during the NLCS. The Mets didn’t build their lineup around speed, but they still saw opportunities and stole seven bases. New York’s power pitchers – Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom – allowed five runs in 20-plus innings while closer Jeurys Familia finished all four games.
“They’re an exciting pitching staff,” Lester said. “They’re young, which is a little bit scary. The fact that those guys are going to be around for a long time – that’s exciting, too.
“They’re obviously going to be in it probably every year. And probably the team that we’re going to have to go through to get where we want to go.”
• The Undercover Boss is not a fan of The Dark Knight of Gotham: Board member Todd Ricketts – who’s probably best known for his right-wing politics and going on that reality TV show – used a Cubs Convention stage to say “Mets fans are really, really obnoxious” during a Q-and-A session with ownership.
That wound up becoming the main story on the New York Post’s website in the middle of January, showing the crossover appeal of these two teams and how much heat this could generate if really becomes a rivalry again.
Ricketts explained how his French-Canadian wife, Sylvie, is a huge hockey fan who rooted for the Blackhawks and viewed the Cubs as more of a family business until that playoff ride.
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“We continued to watch baseball,” Ricketts said, setting the scene for World Series Game 5 and the Mets leading Kansas City in the ninth inning. “My wife and I are sitting in our living room. It’s 10:30 at night. We’re in our pajamas. I don’t know if you guys remember – Matt Harvey refused to come out of the game.
“He did a show on TV. He did his own little drama on TV to show that he was the tough guy and he was going to win this game for the Mets. He went back out on the mound – and I think three batters later the Royals had scored two runs.”
Kansas City tied the game when Eric Hosmer alertly hustled on a groundball, and then scored five runs in the 12th inning to win its first World Series in 30 years.
“When Hosmer’s left hand went across home plate,” Ricketts said, “my wife jumped up, pointed at the TV and she said: ‘Screw you, Matt Harvey! Screw you, Mets fans!’
“So I’m not certain that she’s adopted baseball as her favorite sport. And I’m not certain that she still would say that the Cubs are her favorite team, because she loves the Blackhawks so much. But I know this for sure: She really, really hates the Mets.”