Tuesday night as the Cubs trounced the Arizona Diamondbacks, there was a collective sigh of relief amongst the fan faithful. It is easy to see a turnaround or say that the offense finally did what they were supposed to do. Beat a team without the stress of a close game, instead of clawing for two or three runs and hang everything on the bullpen.
But scoring at will is a luxury.
For most of my Philadelphia Phillies career, I was on a team that unsuccessfully chased the Atlanta Braves year in and year out. For a staggering 11 consecutive seasons (1995-2005) the Braves won the National League East (They also won three out of the previous four before 1995). Although they only were able to bring home one World Series championship during that stretch, they were a nightmare to play against. Time has made that statement less anecdotal as they had THREE Hall of Fame pitchers in their starting rotation. Digest that for a minute.
Now some of their teams ran away with the division, some won the title through end of season heroics, but there was no formula for why they were successful from year to year. They had years where different aspects of their game were better than other years. They won 90 games in 1995 and won the World Series. They won 100-plus games in five of those seasons and only went to the World Series once (lost to the Yankees that season.)
Nothing brings this home more than the 2002 and 2003 Braves. In 2002, they scored 4.4 runs per game, hit 164 home runs, hit .260 as a team. In 2003, they scored 5.6 runs per game, hit a monster 235 home runs, and hit .284 as a team. Guess what? They both won 101 games. In ’02 the team ERA was 3.13, in ’03 it was 4.10. Neither team won the World Series.
The Cubs in 2018 have battled the ups and down of their offense and like with most teams, navigated injuries that undercut their best roster. These days, what stings the most is the loss of closer Brandon Morrow for this season, after losing Pedro Strop to an injury caused from running the bases. All of a sudden, the absence of anchors at the back end of their bullpen may sink the ship, or at least ground it. But no matter what we can conclude about the impact of this reality they face, they still have to play baseball for us to find out.
The stress of not having a team that can bulldoze a team every night is a modern byproduct of high expectation. A time when the numbers are deep enough to show us the vulnerabilities. The fact that the Cubs have the best record in the NL with notable weaknesses is seen as an indicator of their frailty instead of their resilience. It is what can go wrong, instead of what can go right. But as I learned from trying to beat those Braves team, they were simply a great team, even when they weren’t pitching or hitting at their best. Great teams, find a way to win anyway. Maybe we should ask the Brewers, Cardinals, or Marlins what they think of playing the Cubs. Guaranteed that they know they have to bring their A+ game.
The Cubs have won all season long with that up and down offense AND with an up and down starting rotation. That is hard to do, but to the Cubs credit, they have understood from the first game of the season that all they must do is outscore their opponent. It turns out, winning 2-1 counts as much as winning 11-3. They manage that stress because they still are in the sunlight of being World Champions... and they are a good ball club that expects to win.
We must keep in mind that at this level, teams are closely matched. Even when I played against some of those dominant teams from my era, they didn’t destroy us night in and night out, but they found opportunity and kicked the door down. Give them an extra out or an second life, and they buried you with it. They seized moments. This is how the Royals, the Cubs, the Astros were able to break dry spells. The years of the Yankee-like dynasties are over. Paying to win is not what it used to be, you must develop, you must find the slightest of advantages.
And part of development is taking lumps, being imperfect, not closing every hole, but learning how to work with and around a hole. You learn to celebrate your strengths, and most importantly, learn how to find ways to win when it counts.
The NLCS and the World Series are best of seven series. There is no rule saying that to be a real champion, you must obliterate your opponent every night and win the series four games to zero. Just like there is no rule saying that you need consistent offense that puts up seven runs a night to be a champion. (See World champion Giants of 2012 who only hit 103 home runs or the 2010 Giants who hit .257 as a team or .255 in 2014.)
Winning the series four games to three, therefore having a 4-3 record (winning percentage of .571) is a lower winning percentage than that Cubs have this season — .587. And that .571 earns you the crown. They could get no-hit for three games and win the other four games 3-2 and walk away with the trophy. Sure, it will not unfold exactly that way, but winning teams often make that math work for them.
As for the American League, yes, they have some forceful teams. The Astros, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Indians. Wow. But you only have to beat one of them. In the American League, they will spend early October, beating each other up and leave one standing, battered and bruised. Then in the World Series, the first team to four games, wins. No one in the National League has to beat all four of those teams. No one has to even beat two of those teams. Just one.
Then it comes down to one series and anything is possible then.
It has been a long season for the Cubs. Lots of injuries, lots of surprises. But covering this team for 150-plus games, I cannot say I have seen any team they played against that is just simply and clearly better than the Cubs. Certainly not to the point that this opponent cannot be beaten…at all.
Perfection and domination are overrated. Be an imperfect champion, then all of us, with all of our imperfections, can feel like champions too.