PHOENIX – When a Clayton Kershaw or a Madison Bumgarner schooled the Cubs last summer, manager Joe Maddon wrote it off as getting ready for October, young hitters learning how to handle the velocity, movement and sequencing they would see in the playoffs.
Zack Greinke could have rejoined Kershaw on a Los Angeles Dodgers team that was supposed to have unlimited resources — or teamed up with Bumgarner on the San Francisco Giants to try to create a dynasty and stoke that West Coast rivalry.
That would be Greinke’s decision. Until the Arizona Diamondbacks swooped in with a six-year, $206.5 million offer, stunning the baseball world before the winter meetings ever started.
The Cubs spent almost $290 million this offseason — even without that kind of pitching megadeal — trying to build a better team to get back to the National League Championship Series and beyond.
The new-and-improved lineup jumped Greinke in the first inning on Saturday night at Chase Field, scoring three early runs on the way to a 4-2 win over the Diamondbacks and showing their blueprint for October.
“He’s obviously still a Cy Young-caliber pitcher,” Maddon said. “I just think our guys might be better equipped to handle the moment. Greinke is still pretty much the same guy he was last year. I think our younger guys might be a little bit more than they were last year, based on experience.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and hit him all over the ballpark. I just think from the mental perspective, our guys might not be — I don’t know if the right word is ‘in awe’ — or just a better understanding of what they’re going to face.”
Greinke’s arsenal and baseball IQ had drawn comparisons to Greg Maddux during the free-agent process, creating the belief that he could age gracefully over the life of a long-term contract. Knowing that Greinke had bombed in his Opening Day debut — a 10-5 loss to the Colorado Rockies — the Cubs couldn’t allow him get into a rhythm.
It started with back-to-back-to-back singles from Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo. Kris Bryant then smashed a ball off diving shortstop Nick Ahmed, hustling for a double while Rizzo ran from first to third base. Miguel Montero’s sacrifice fly to deep left field made it 3-0 in the first inning.
“We didn’t want to let him settle in,” Rizzo said. “We were going to try to be aggressive, right out the chute and we did a good job of getting those runs early. He ended up settling in against us and doing what he does to everyone. But those runs were huge for us.”
Even with Kyle Schwarber on crutches and sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee, the Cubs still have a deeper, more diversified offense than last season.
Zobrist changed the Kansas City Royals lineup during last year’s World Series run after a midseason trade from the Oakland A’s. He tacked on another run against Greinke in the fourth inning when he slammed a two-out double off the wall in center field.
“When our guys go up to hit, man, it’s contagious,” Maddon said. “They’re talking in the dugout. It’s not just happening at home plate. They’re talking about grinding out the at-bats. You hear that all the time. But then you actually have to do it. And our guys are doing it right now. It’s beautiful.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
Kyle Hendricks never looks like he’s in awe or confused or overwhelmed, and the No. 5 starter allowed only two runs in 6.2 innings, outpitching Greinke, who finished second to Jake Arrieta in last year’s NL Cy Young race. Adam Warren (Cubs debut) and Hector Rondon (first save this season) combined to get the final seven outs.
After winning the offseason, the Cubs are now 4-1 and no longer the young team learning how to win. This didn’t have the all-or-nothing feel that sometimes made last year’s games so unpredictable (major-league leading 1,518 strikeouts) or the NLCS sweep by the New York Mets so disappointing.
“The power’s still there,” Maddon said. “The power’s definitely prevalent. But it’s more like we’re seeing the line-drive, base-hit, eking-out-to-score-a-run kind of an offense, which I love. So if you could combine those things — that’s what’s going to help you at the end of the year.
“When you get to the playoff time and you’re facing really good pitching, to be able to move the baseball in counts matters a lot, as opposed to swinging and missing and coming back to the dugout.”