Jason Heyward

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.

Do the Cubs consider the 2018 season a success? 'No'

Do the Cubs consider the 2018 season a success? 'No'

My, how things have changed at the corner of Clark and Addison.

Wrigley Field was once home of the "Lovable Losers" and now it houses a 95-win team that just made the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season for the first time in the history of the franchise and yet everybody is unhappy.

Thus is the nature of "World Series or bust" expectations.

And that's exactly what the Cubs have here now.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad thing the Cubs and their fans are unhappy right now after a 2-1 loss in the thrilling — and stressful — 13-inning Wild-Card Game. 

We are truly in the golden era of Cubs baseball. So much so that a reporter cited Derek Jeter and the powerhouse Yankees when comparing the culture in a clubhouse that used to be home of the team with the longest championship drought in professional sports history.

Jeter and the Yankees expected to win the World Series every single year.

Now, Kris Bryant and the Cubs have the same goals and anything less is a disappointment.

"Absolutely. We totally feel that," Bryant said. "After we won in 2016, it was a World Series or bust attitude. I mean, that's the right attitude to have. You play to be the last team standing. You don't play just to make the playoffs. 

"I think we've kinda built that culture up here that we are some of the best Chicago Cub teams that they've ever fielded and we take that and I'm pretty proud of that. We wanna go out there and win, but this year just wasn't our year."

This is the earliest young players like Bryant and Kyle Schwarber have had their seasons end since joining the big-league roster in 2015. They weren't even sure what to do with themselves in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, spending time hugging each other or just sitting at their locker staring speechless into space.

A handful of players still hadn't showered or changed out of their uniforms more than an hour after the final out. Javy Baez talked to the media with eye black smeared all over his face.

Most of the Cubs players were asked how they would sum up this season and if it would be considered a success or not despite 95 wins, a run in first place that lasted for the entire second half of the season and took a Game 163 to dethrone.

Albert Almora Jr. didn't even let a reporter finish the question.

"No. No. We lost," Almora said. "There's a lot of positives, but it's not a success unless we win. That's just the mindset that we have here. There were a lot of positives throughout the way. A lot of character grew in this clubhouse. That's all we can ask for, man.

"Unfortunately, this league is unbelievably hard and we're trying to get to the World Series, trying to win another World Series. It's good players out there and I think we did a great job with the hand we were dealt and we never gave up."

The hand the Cubs were dealt does include a brutal stretch to close out the regular season (only one off-day over the final 5-plus weeks) and then a tiebreaker the day before the win-or-go-home postseason game.

But nobody used that as an excuse in the Cubs clubhouse and they don't feel like they choked down the stretch to let the Brewers take the division. After all, Milwaukee had to win its final 8 games in a row just to be able to sit alone atop the NL Central.

"There's a couple goals throughout the season that you set out to do and obviously to win the division first and then move on to the World Series," Jon Lester said. "Sometimes you can't always control what goes on around you. But at the end of the day, I feel like coming down the stretch, we played good baseball. It wasn't like we beat ourselves.

"Sometimes you gotta tip your hat to the opponent. I mean, you go 13 innings tonight against a really good team and we come out on the short end of the stick. But I feel like we shoulda won that game."

Jason Heyward's voice and perspective carries a lot of weight in that clubhouse and he isn't here for consolation prizes.

"Successful? Well, I'll tell you the way we go about things here," Heyward said. "We didn't pop any bottles this year. Tonight, of course, if we had won, we would've popped bottles. We had plenty to toast to. And we don't take postseasons for granted, we don't take winning for granted.

"But our mindset is World Series or no. So that's kind of where our head is. It's a successful season. We were in the postseason, we played after the regular season. But where we want to go is win the World Series and that didn't happen for us this year."

Anthony Rizzo is the face of the Cubs franchise and was a gigantic reason why they won it all in 2016.

But he's seen it all in his 7 years in a Cubs uniform and certainly remembers what a 101-loss season feels like.

“In 2015, we were winning the Wild-Card game no matter what," Rizzo said. "In 2018, I’d say fans were pissed that we were in the Wild-Card game because we had a chance to win the division, we didn’t. But we’ve really flipped this culture here in the Chicago Cubs organization to being winners, and we fell short this year."

Schwarber was positive as always, looking ahead to bigger and better things in 2019.

“Right now it’s hard to swallow for all of us, but the big picture is we’ve done a lot of things here in the last couple years the Cubs faithful should be very proud of," Schwarber said. "And we’re expecting bigger things each and every year. So hang with us. Obviously, we’re all going to take our time here to swallow it, and trust us, we’ll be back and better than ever next year.”

Nobody knows yet what changes this offseason will bring, but one thing's for certain — the Cubs' main goal in 2019 will absolutely be another World Series trophy.

As win-or-go-home wild card game arrives, what's happened to Cubs' offense? 'I don’t have any really solid answers'

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USA TODAY

As win-or-go-home wild card game arrives, what's happened to Cubs' offense? 'I don’t have any really solid answers'

Want to know how the Brewers caught the Cubs for the NL Central crown?

Take a look at the September numbers.

The Cubs slashed .239/.303/.367, scored 116 runs and hit 21 homers in the month of September. The Brewers slashed .250/.343/.445, scored 144 runs and hit 39 homers in the month of September.

No, it doesn't tell the whole story. But the Brewers have swung hot bats for the last month and the Cubs haven’t. At the very least, you could count on more consistent offensive production from the Milwaukee lineup than the Chicago one.

And that’s what played out in Monday’s Game 163. The Brewers might not have lit up the scoreboard, but they banged out 12 hits and came through in the moments they needed to. The Cubs had three hits on the day and gave themselves few opportunities.

“They got 12 hits, we got three,” manager Joe Maddon said. “(Anthony Rizzo) obviously righted the ship for us a little bit (with his game-tying solo home run). But we weren’t really striking the ball with any kind of consistency.”

The Cubs don’t need to worry about the Brewers right now. The focus is squarely on Tuesday night’s win-or-go-home NL wild card game against the Rockies at Wrigley Field. The question is: Can they figure out what’s plaguing their offense and score enough to see the Brewers later this week?

“Well it’s been going on for a bit,” Maddon said of the Cubs’ offensive inconsistencies. “It’s just the consistent hard contact has not been there, more than anything. And I can’t give you a solid reason.

“We’ve got to find it. Quickly. The capabilities are within the group, there’s no doubt. We have one more shot tomorrow to right the ship and then move on from there. I don’t have any really solid answers.”

That’s probably some pretty scary stuff for Cubs fans to read, but they know it to be true after watching this team for the last month.

The good news is the Cubs do get to turn to Jon Lester, and Cole Hamels later on, who have a ridiculous amount of high-leverage playoff experience between the two of them. The pitching has been good, as evidenced in Monday’s game, with Jose Quintana and a parade of relievers limiting the Brewers to just three runs. Quintana surrendered just one before getting lifted after the sixth inning’s first batter.

The bad news is the mystery. Who knows what this offense will be able to do? The Rockies will throw Kyle Freeland, who owns a 2.85 ERA and has quite simply been one of the NL’s finest starting pitchers this season. The Cubs scored 33 runs in this year’s six games against the Rockies — but how much difference does that make when Colorado scored the exact same amount against them?

There’s no magic bullet or one thing this lineup needs to do to turn things around.

“Hopefully we score more runs,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “That’d be a nice start, I’d like to get more hits.”

Yeah, that’s what Cubs fans are hoping for, too.

“Guys have really good routines, preparation, going over the starting pitchers, going over the bullpen. We’re engaged on the bench,” Rizzo said. “Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not.”

Again, perhaps not the explanation Cubs fans want to hear with the season on the line Tuesday night.

But this team has earned the benefit of the doubt, too. The Cubs have played deep into October in each of the last three postseasons, and that doesn’t happen without figuring out how to come up with the right hits at the right times. Heck, even in what is being looked at as a more disappointing season to this point than its predecessors, only one NL team has a better run differential at the close of the regular season: the NL West champion Dodgers.

“We won 95 games. It just wasn’t good enough,” Rizzo said. “We won 98 games one year, and we were happy we were in the the wild card (game). It’s just the way it’s shifted around here, the expectations have gone up, and we hold ourselves to an extremely high level. I think tomorrow it’s all about focusing on having good at-bats. And usually if you have good at-bats, good things come out of it.”

Even external factors can make all the difference. Saturday’s loss to the Cardinals featured plenty of the hard contact Maddon has been searching for, just right at St. Louis defenders. In Monday’s game, a different direction of wind might have changed the game entirely, with Rizzo and Jason Heyward both seemingly launching balls into the seats, only for them to settle in outfielders’ gloves.

“We need the wind to not knock mine down and Tony’s there at the end,” Heyward said. “Because if we’re playing in Milwaukee, those two might’ve been gone.”

So while Murphy’s comments about getting more hits and scoring more runs might’ve seemed a bit simplistic, they aren’t wrong.

The Cubs have one more shot Tuesday night to save their season, and like many of the games they’ve played this year, it won’t be easy. But look at what this team has done before, where it’s been, and perhaps you’ll come to the conclusion that counting these players out makes as little sense as these offensive struggles.