On a warm, breezy, February afternoon in Mesa, Arizona, Anthony Rizzo relaxed on the patio near a practice field at the Cubs’ spring training complex and talked about what he called possibly his final year as a Cub.
“We’ve got to enjoy these days. Every single day,” he said. “Because, listen, it’s not Year Two for all of us; it’s coming toward the end for all of us [as a group].”
Seven months, a league-wide shutdown and more than 40 individual COVID-19 tests later, Rizzo is still a Cub, along with the rest of the group — and against all odds about to join the rest of baseball in pulling off the long shot of a 60-game season during a deadly pandemic.
If the end indeed is near for the Cubs’ core that won the 2016 championship, it is at least assured — as of Tuesday night — one more chance to go out on top.
“It feels great,” Rizzo said of clinching a fifth playoff spot in six seasons, despite losing 3-2 to the Pirates when Jacob Stallings homered to walk off on the Cubs.
“I know it’s game 50-whatever, but it feels like it’s game 150-something,” said Rizzo, the most tenured Cub and the most vocal during the midsummer restart about how much this last dance with the core meant to him.
“We’ve been going since February, and then you go home and have the uncertainty of when you’re going to [restart],” he said. “And I know we had a long break [from mid-March to July 1]. But it feels like this is the end of 162. I know it’s not, but guys have come in every day, and we’ve had good energy, and there’s been days obviously when you’re feeling a little low, but somebody else picks you up.”
And they’ve worn masks in the clubhouse and dugout, kept social distance when possible, locked down in hotels on the road, been tested every other day (with occasional extra tests) and sweated out the ramifications of team-wide coronavirus outbreaks with the Marlins and Cardinals early in the season — all without a fan in the ballpark during any game they played.
They also haven’t hit well, started poorly in the bullpen, were hurt by pitching injuries and slumps, and don’t have a winning record against five of their nine opponents this season.
Yet they have more than survived, with a 3 1/2-game lead in the National League Central with five games to play in the most stressful, historic and damndest season any of them hope they ever will see in their lives.
“It’s a good feeling for sure,” Rizzo said. “I know this season is 60 games and that with everything that every team has had to through individually as a team and individually as players it’s been a big sacrifice. Families are making the sacrifice at home and staying in your own little bubble at home. … And now just the whole thing is starting to come to fruition, and you see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
They made it back to the playoffs after missing it last year and getting bounced in a wild-card game the year before. They did it with a first-time manager, David Ross, who was an impact teammate on the 2016 title team.
And that they did it at all is what matters to Rizzo, whose team will earn a first-round, best-of-three home series if it wins its third division title in five years, facing either the NL’s second-place team with the worst record or the third-place team with the best record.
“It’s definitely something we’re not going to take for granted,” Rizzo said. “Because this is not easy.”