WASHINGTON – What are the odds the Cubs would win the World Series and Donald Trump would become president before the Washington Nationals won a playoff series?
We can only imagine the reaction if Dale Sveum heard that apocalyptic postgame question on Sept. 6, 2012, when the Cubs manager summed up a four-game sweep at Nationals Park like this: “That’s just men playing against boys right now.”
This was nearing the end of Year 1 for the Theo Epstein administration, when the light at the end of the tunnel felt more like a bridge to nowhere.
Now the Cubs are the defending World Series champs. Epstein’s baseball operations group continues a tradition of playing pickup basketball before each playoff series, posing for pictures on Thursday with Patrick Ewing on the Georgetown campus. And Washington is the team that has to prove it can handle the pressure in the best-of-five National League Division Series that begins Friday night at Nationals Park.
That alternative reality would have sounded absolutely bonkers while watching the Cubs and Nationals that September.
“I showed (Kyle) Schwarber like three days ago,” said catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello, his face lighting up with recognition. “We gave up 15 homers in four games. We watched every homer the other day. I said: ‘This is where we were.’”
Sveum got fired, in part, for his brutal honesty after another fifth-place finish in 2013. But he knew all about talent and preparation after: playing with Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor; being on the 1998 New York Yankees team that won 114 games and the first of three straight World Series titles; and helping coach up the iconic “Band of Idiots” on the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
Set aside Jeff Samardzija’s 2-1 loss on Labor Day — another sign the Notre Dame football star could become a 200-inning pitcher and anchor a flip deal for future All-Star shortstop Addison Russell — and the Cubs got outscored 29-8 in three games started by Chris Rusin, Chris Volstad and Justin Germano.
“I’ve never been part of three consecutive games that you were just beyond overmatched,” said Borzello, a Sveum hire who earned four World Series rings as a Yankee staffer. “These homers were not fence-scrapers. It was like: ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!’ It wouldn’t stop. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
General manager Jed Hoyer fired off a long internal memo after that series, detailing how the Nationals were built and how they timed their big moves. In the middle of the 2009 season, as an up-and-coming Red Sox employee, Hoyer had multiple interviews with Nationals ownership for the GM job that went to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo as an internal promotion.
“It was like smacking us in the face,” Hoyer said. “This is what we wanted to become when we were good. We were looking at an adult version, or basically a late-teenage-years version of what we were trying to be.
“Getting destroyed by those guys, I thought, was actually like a great thing for our mentality. Like: ‘Oh, OK, this is how far we are away.’
“But also in 2009, when I was interviewing there, they were dead last, so it doesn’t have to take forever.”
Indeed, the Nationals turned 102- and 103-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009 into No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg (Game 1 starter) and Bryce Harper (2015 NL MVP). Though it hasn’t yet translated into October glory, the Nationals have won between 95 and 98 games and division titles in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017.
Out of that 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs found their own future NL Rookie of the Year/MVP from Las Vegas: Kris Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, part of a run on hitters that includes Schwarber, the 2014 first-round selection who’s 3-for-3 in playoff appearances and already an October legend.
“It’s crazy,” Schwarber said. “I was lucky enough to come here when we made the playoffs. That’s all I know – winning right now.
“I’m sure there’s other guys in this room that have been part of losing teams, and they don’t ever want to have that feeling again. I know for a fact I don’t ever want to have that feeling of being on a losing team.
“It’s the competitive nature of this game. You want to make it to the playoffs. You want to win the World Series. I’m lucky. I’m fortunate to be a part of this. We just want to keep it going.”
In the same way that the Nationals gave outfielder Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million contract after a 93-loss season in 2010 — to change their culture and add championship experience — the Cubs signed big-game pitcher Jon Lester to a six-year, $155 million megadeal after a last-place finish in 2014.
Now Werth is appreciating his final days in a Washington uniform, super-agent Scott Boras will market Harper as a free agent after next season, the Nationals don’t know how long Strasburg and Max Scherzer can reasonably stay healthy and the Cubs feel like they are just getting started.
“This team has an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done for a while,” said Ben Zobrist, last year’s World Series MVP. “There’s been some teams that have dominated those few years in a row. This team, because of all the young players, and because of the resources the club has going forward, has the opportunity to do that for years to come.
“You’re entering the smack-dab middle of a time where you got a lot of young, exciting Cubs players that are going to make their mark for years and years to come. So this is the time to be a Cub fan. If you want to jump on the bandwagon, do it now.”
But to fully appreciate the scope of this teardown, rebuild and potential dynasty, you have to understand “Men vs. Boys.”
“Don’t forget this series, because this is the one that’s going to keep you pushing,” Borzello remembered thinking at the time. “You never want to experience that again.
“It’s more an appreciation of where we are. But to appreciate where we are, you can’t forget where you’ve been. And that is the series that I’ll never forget. That’s where we were.”