Cubs

Closing the book on 2017: 5 things we learned from this Cubs postseason

Closing the book on 2017: 5 things we learned from this Cubs postseason

Hey, there's always last year.

The Cubs' 2017 season is now over, by virtue of an 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers Thursday night at a shell-shocked Wrigley Field.

The Cubs are not going to enter their name into the history books (for any good reason, anyways. Their postseason batting average on the other hand...)

Wednesday's nail-biting win over the Dodgers was something of a last tribute to the ever-loyal fanbase and not actually the beginning of a comeback from down 0-3 in the NLCS.

There will be plenty of time — all winter, actually — to digest this Cubs season, but here are five quick takeaways entering the offseason:

The bullpen is the No. 1 area of need.

That's obvious to anybody who's watched any Cubs game this postseason.

The only reliever Maddon truly trusted all October was Wade Davis, and he even he finished with a 4.26 ERA and 1.72 WHIP.

Pedro Strop and Brian Duensing flew under the radar with an overall solid body of work this postseason. Strop will be back next year, but Duensing is a free agent and was one of the best bargains in baseball at a $2 million salary for 2017.

Davis is also a free agent and Carl Edwards Jr. certainly doesn't look to be ascending into that closer's role anytime soon. The Cubs thought they were getting a guy who could close in 2018 when they acquired Justin Wilson at the trade deadline, but the lefty wasn't even active for the NLCS.

Shoring up the bullpen will be the primary concern for Theo Epstein's front office this winter, especially with how important relievers have become in October the last few falls.

Hangovers are real.

The Cubs have shown signs of having a World Series hangover the entirety of 2017 — mentally, physically, emotionally.

The first half of the season proved that, but the Cubs have not been the same team with a relentless lineup this entire postseason. They topped three runs in only one of 10 postseason games, and in that one (Game 5), they took advantage more of Washington's mistakes rather than hitting the crap out of the ball.

The Cubs just looked out of gas in the NLCS, which is understandable. They've played more baseball than any other team (by a sizable margin) the last three seasons, playing into November last year. Throw in all the national TV appearances and street dedications and all that jazz and the winter was amazingly short for Joe Maddon and Co.

But even looking just at this fall, the Cubs never quite recovered from the hangover of that epic Game 5 in the NLDS. They left so much on that field in Washington D.C. and never found their rhythm again after.

The Cubs have an amazing library of resiliency to draw confidence from.

As if Game 7 and the 2016 postseason run wasn't enough, this Cubs core found so many more reasons for confidence this October.

So they were being no-hit by a Cy Young finalist in the latter innings of a game. They could still pull off a victory, which they did twice in the NLDS.

So they had their backs against the wall in both the NLDS and NLCS. They responded with wins in their first two elimination games of the postseason.

That NLDS finale alone will be something they can draw on for the rest of their careers, much like Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

The Cubs' lineup needs more.

Epstein's front office has invested so much in young hitting over the last few years, but this was not a banner month for those guys.

Bryzzo Souvenir Co. had a particularly rough showing, with Kris Bryant's only postseason homer coming when his team was already down 9-0 in an elimination game against the Dodgers.

Anthony Rizzo yelled "RESPECT ME!" after a bloop basehit against the Nationals in Game 3 of the NLDS and went hitless in his next 16 at-bats right after that.

And when Bryzzo doesn't hit, this lineup looks a whole lot different. That same thing can be said about any team in baseball if you take the two best hitters out of the equation, but given the youth of the Cubs offense, they needed their MVP candidates.

But this October also proved how necessary a leadoff hitter is for the team, shining even more light on the absence of Dexter Fowler.

Ben Zobrist had a forgettable 2017 season from start to finish and wound up hitless in the NLCS and with just a .160 batting average this postseason. This is a guy who spent all of last October protecting Bryzzo in the lineup and winning World Series MVP honors.

The Cubs struck out 105 times in 10 postseason games while hitting just nine homers (most of which were of the solo variety). 

The offense's undoing also put more pressure on the pitching staff — and bullpen in general — all postseason.

The Cubs lineup may look a bit different in 2018 with guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ possibly playing more.

But Zobrist is still under contract and will be 37. Jason Heyward (and his .108 postseason batting average in a Cubs uniform) hasn't provided the offensive production in October the Cubs hoped for when they inked him to a $184 million deal (though he gives one hell of a speech and is a great presence in the clubhouse and in the outfield).

It'll be interesting to see what the Cubs do to address the leadoff position this winter, but other than that, almost the entire crew will be back.

And keep in mind: This is a small sample size that just so happened to come at the wrong time for the Cubs. There's also the fact they went up against elite pitcher after elite pitcher this October, but such is life in the postseason.

Last fall was filled with clutch, timely hits from guys like Addison Russell, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras and all three of those guys didn't have the same impact this year.

This truly is the golden era of Cubs baseball.

Len Kasper summed up this season perfectly as the calendar flipped to October:

https://twitter.com/LenKasper/status/914611029774159873

It really is a great time to be a Cubs fan, even if they aren't getting a shot to take home a second straight championship.

All the postseason statistical leaders in franchise history play on this team right now.

Consider: 

—The top five spots on the most RBI in Cubs postseason history are Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber.

—Jake Arrieta has the most wins (5) in Cubs postseason history.

—Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are 1-2-3 in Cubs postseason strikeout history.

—Bryant and Rizzo lead the franchise in postseason hits while Baez is tied for fourth.

After so many years of losing, this team not only ended the 108-year title drought but also made it to the NLCS for three straight seasons. That's a remarkable stretch of success that doesn't figure to end anytime soon with how much of the core is back for 2018 and beyond.

If you told Cubs fans five years ago they would be one of the last four teams left alive in Major League Baseball for three straight seasons and have a World Series championship in that span, every single fan would sell their soul for that chance.

Regardless of how it ended, the 2017 Cubs season was an overwhelming, smashing success.

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

0716-kyle-schwarber.jpg
USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

sosa_generic_1998_road_hr_slide.jpg
AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 36th homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

 

Sosa went down and golfed a pitch out for his 36th homer on July 17, 1998. He smacked Marlins reliever Kirt Ojala's (who??) pitch just over the wall in center field at Pro Player Stadium for a 2-run shot that closed out the Cubs' scoring in a 6-1 victory.

 

The blast accounted for Sosa's 88th and 89th of the season. By comparison, Javy Baez currently leads the Cubs (and the National League) with 72 RBI on July 17, 2018.

 

Steve Trachsel tossed a complete game for the Cubs in the victory that day and Sosa finished with the only extra-base hits for either team (he also had a double).

 

Fun fact: Former Cub Ryan Dempster started the game for the Marlins, but lasted just 4.1 innings to run his season record to 1-4 with a 6.70 ERA.