Emma: These Cubs Are More Than Prepared To Take Center Stage

By Chris Emma–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Rain came down above baseball’s center stage and washed away hope from a memorable 2015 season at Wrigley Field.

When the skies opened up after that soggy Game 3 loss, the Cubs still had a chance down 3-0 to the Mets in the NLCS, but realistically, this team couldn’t come back. New York had out-classed its Second City foe.

“It left a lot of bitter tastes in guys’ mouths,” Cubs left-hander Jon Lester recalled Friday.

Prior to the conclusion of the 2015 season, the Cubs tried everything from Simon the Magician to hope cast by Kevin Millar with the 2004 Red Sox in his famous “Don’t let us win one” speech. What the Cubs really needed was another year for growth.

Here they are once again, poised to take the pennant and perhaps more.

The Cubs were the best team in baseball during their 103-win regular season and looked the part in their NLDS victory over the Giants. They are a well-oiled machine, with the stacked lineup and terrific defense, the formidable four in the rotation and a relentless bullpen. Manager Joe Maddon has every tool from which to choose.

The Dodgers boast the game’s most untouchable pitcher and a strong lineup, but the Cubs look even better and deeper. They can beat you in so many ways.

One year ago, the Cubs weren’t quite in this position. They just weren’t ready.

Psychologically, they were perfectly prepared. The players followed Maddon’s lead and embraced the challenge. But as a team, the Cubs were a far cry from what they are now.

Kris Bryant struggled through parts of his rookie season. Now, he’s the leading NL MVP candidate. Kyle Hendricks was merely a fifth starter, not a Cy Young candidate. Addison Russell looked like a rookie in 2015. Now, he’s a budding star at shortstop whose bat is becoming a force. Lester didn’t always look like a $155-million man during his first season in a Cubs uniform. The Game 1 starter looks the part now.

Outfield defense was a struggle at times. The Cubs answered that by bringing in Jason Heyward, a perennial Gold Glove candidate. The team struck out at a nearly historic rate in 2015. In came Ben Zobrist, whose plate approach deserves its own instructional video.

Look no further than the maturation of Javier Baez as a perfect example for this Cubs team’s improvement. A first-round pick in 2011, Baez hadn’t rejoined the roster until the September call-ups. Purely by Maddon’s faith, Baez was selected to that playoff roster.

Baez has become a breakout star this postseason. Maddon had no choice but to put his stellar defense at second base, moving Zobrist to left field. Baez arrived as a struggling slugger with that Happy Gilmore-like swing and became a five-tool player with tremendous versatility.

Seriously, who could’ve ever imagined a tagging montage in a broadcast? Baez made it happen.

With Chicago trailing by three runs in the ninth inning of Game 4 in San Francisco, it was the newcomer Zobrist whose RBI double brought in a run and set the stage for a comeback. Rookie Willson Contreras came through with a crisp swing that delivered the game-tying two-run single up the middle. Then Baez continued his series of contributions by placing the winning hit up the middle.

July acquisition Aroldis Chapman was traded in order to secure the ninth inning. He came in and struck out the side in scintillating fashion.

The Cubs didn’t have all this a year ago.

So long as these players are wearing that red “C” on their caps, the narratives of pressure and expectations will follow their postseason journeys. They emerged again in Friday’s media session.

“I want our guys to understand that those words are going to be applied to them on an annual basis,” Maddon replied. “I want them to embrace it.”

Added Lester: “It doesn’t mean it’s a curse, a black cat, a goat or anything else — we’re going to make mistakes.”

Yes, these Cubs are certainly self-aware. Maddon keeps them remarkably immune to any outside noise and focused on the realities. Their chase to erase 108 years of infamy is a joy inside that clubhouse.

Last October, the Cubs didn’t succumb to pressure and expectations. For all their youth and inexperience, the lights didn’t prove to be too bright. Those Cubs just weren’t good enough to win a World Series.

These Cubs are built for this NLCS stage and beyond. They’re only just beginning.

“We just keep getting better,” Lester said. “That’s kind of the scary part for our league for the next however many years.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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