By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — The sun began to set, and the lights shined brighter throughout Wrigley Field. The days are shorter come October.
Wrigley’s famed ivy-covered walls have taken the colors of autumn earlier than a year ago. It’s a ballpark beauty that has gone unnoticed for so many years — something to appreciate perhaps for many more Octobers to come.
Finally, playoff baseball is upon us.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us — on an annual basis, hopefully — that you get to this point and have a chance to win a World Series,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said to a media scrum in the third-base dugout Tuesday, three days before his team open the playoffs. “I want them to absolutely enjoy the moment.”
Before the Cubs begin their playoff journey, one which brings hopes of winning the team’s first World Series in 108 years, they took to the Friendly Confines for a simulated game Tuesday. Maddon wanted his team to stay fresh during a four-day layoff from games.
Because it’s the Cubs, an an organization cursed only with silly narratives, the questions began of how this young team will handle the pressure. They’re the favorites to win it all.
Of course, these Cubs have been the favorites since spring training. They broke camp in Arizona, then went out and won 103 regular-season games.
Maddon came forth with the mantra of “Embrace The Target,” which was printed on T-shirts for his Cubs. Oh, they most certainly did.
“Those words — pressure and expectations — are positive words,” Maddon said. “You never want to be involved with or associated with the situation that doesn’t have a certain level of expectations involved or a high level of them.
“I think it’s great. Those are the two words that should bring out the best of your performance.”
Tuesday’s simulated game reflected the Cubs’ loose-natured chemistry. Of course this team was going to have its fun, even with the postseason approaching.
Anthony Rizzo unveiled an epic bat flip on a single off John Lackey, which didn’t cause a simulated brawl. Dexter Fowler donned a Miami Dolphins helmet for an at-bat, drawing a walk off Mike Montgomery. Catcher Miguel Montero stood up before the group and said of a Lackey pitch, “That was a Hall of Fame ******* pitch!”
Even president of baseball operations Theo Epstein got into the fun, yelling out toward David Ross before an at-bat.
Worry? Never for these Cubs.
Throughout the course of this long season, the Cubs proved their place as baseball’s best. They won more games than any other team, finishing with a run differential of plus-252 (101 runs higher than the NL’s second-best mark in Washington), and clinched the NL Central in mid-September, some 17.5 games ahead of second-place St. Louis.
Now, they have to prove again that they’re the best. A 37-year-old veteran of two World Series clinchers, Lackey has called this The Real Season ever since early in the 162-game tune-up.
Epstein knows what awaits, too. In 2004, he built Boston its first World Series champion in 86 years, then did it again three seasons later.
Five years ago this month, Epstein escaped Boston in a gorilla suit and came to Chicago. He dreamed of bringing Chicago the same glory he brought his hometown.
Epstein’s team is better equipped than any other foe it could find in the postseason. The Cubs spent this season ensuring every detail of their roster was worthy of the World Series.
The Cubs are healthy and left only pondering the last man to their lineup equation, with Tommy La Stella, Chris Coghlanand Jorge Soler in the mix. Their bullpen is likely set, with just the Jason Hammel question remaining. As for their rotation — Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and Lackey, in that order — there was little concern.
“You can kind of throw the names in a hat, and we’d be fine about the order,” Epstein said.
It’s good to be the Cubs. In fact, Epstein joked that if he would’ve been told in spring training that Hendricks would pitch Game 2, their fifth starter either had a strong season or there was “mass attrition to the rest of the rotation.” Hendricks is a Cy Young favorite.
The Cubs have countless lineup possibilities — does likely MVP Kris Bryant play third base or left field, making way for Javier Baez? — and all kinds of versatility for the situations Maddon embraces.
Credit Epstein, who built this ball club with winning the World Series in mind.
“No other group we’d rather go into October with,” Epstein said.
Baseball’s postseason can be a crapshoot. Last October, the Cubs came in as the upstarts and reached the NLCS but bowed out to the Mets and their terrific pitching. Champions are defined with series, not seasons.
The Cubs are deemed the World Series favorites, but what does that really mean? Not much when you’re facing off against the rest of the best.
“It’s a handful of plays, bounces, breaks and moments that will define a series and dictate the outcome,” said Epstein. “In those moments, there’s no favorite — just competition.”
During spring, the Cubs’ expectations were set. Summer saw them embrace any projection or pressure that could’ve come their way. Finally, the fall is here, when the sun sets earlier, the lights become brighter and the fabled ivy wears autumn’s colors for the long-suffering fans to see.
Maybe this is finally the Cubs’ year.