When the Cubs clinched the National League Central title Saturday for the third time in five years, you can imagine the celebration they had after missing the playoffs a year ago.
“Nope. Nope,” Anthony Rizzo said. “Not this year.”
The COVID-19 protocols governing clubhouses this year had something to do with the more muted celebration of their first outright division title in three years.
But so did this: “We’re grateful to be in the playoffs,” Rizzo said, “but our expectation is to win the World Series.”
Rizzo, the longest-tenured Cub, has been with the team since the first year of roster stripping in 2012 before the rebuild began under Theo Epstein’s new regime.
Four years later came the franchise’s first championship in 108 years, and now — just four years after that — division titles and playoff berths aren’t enough.
Not for a fan base bitter over the quick wild-card exit and playoff miss the last two years. And certainly not for anyone in the clubhouse or front office.
“We don’t want to be known for just breaking the curse,” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said.
It’s against this backdrop of expectations raised over a six-year run of winning seasons that the Cubs open their fifth postseason in that span, Wednesday against the Marlins at Wrigley Field.
Eight players remain from the team that won the 2016 title: Rizzo, Schwarber, Javy Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, Jon Lester and presumptive Game 1 starter Kyle Hendricks.
Make it nine, counting the first-year manager, David Ross, who was a catcher on that team.
Team president Theo Epstein called it a “group that has really redefined this franchise in a lot of ways, and I feel — and I think they feel — like it’s not done yet.”
It’s impossible to predict how volatile the results will look in the most wide-open playoff format in major-league history, with eight best-of-three series kicking off a mammoth 16-team field this week.
The Cubs enter with more postseason experience than most and a 1-2 in the rotation to match almost anyone in Hendricks and Yu Darvish.
But consider the impact of the core that produced the first six-year run of winning seasons since Leo Durocher was the manager 50 years ago, with five postseasons in that span — whether they get to the end of the month or agitate the fans and front office with another early out.
“Sometimes you get so close to a team and expectations get so high that you end up swimming in the natural frustrations,” said Epstein, who has been publicly critical after each of the last two seasons. “And every group has that.
“But it’s important to take a step back and recognize what this group has accomplished and what they’ve meant to the franchise,” he said. “We were trying to build something that could have sustained success and defined that by becoming regular participants in October every year or just about every year. Now this group of core players has gone out and made it to October five years out of six, with three division championships, three [League Championship Series] — hopefully four — and one World Series — hopefully two.
“It’s really impressive and should not be taken for granted.”
Whatever the postseason results and whatever the fallout with inevitable changes sure to follow this winter, that much was assured. No one in recent days has seemed to take it for granted.
The only thing more certain is this core’s legacy won’t be forgotten anytime soon, no matter what direction it takes next.
“I feel like we just win here,” Bryant said. “If you look at the course of these last six years, it kind of feels like this whole culture in this clubhouse and city … it’s just a winning culture now that hadn’t been here in a very long time.
“And it’s a testament to everybody involved here: the players and past players, front office, coaches, everybody involved has kind of brought this team out of the gutters and made the Cubs who they are. And it’s been really special to be a part of that.”