By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) On June 27, the Cubs allowed seven stolen bases in a 6-1 loss to the Washington Nationals. After the game, catcher Miguel Montero was brutally honest about right-hander Jake Arrieta being too slow to the plate too often, committing the cardinal sports sin of bus-tossing a teammate in the press, even if he wasn’t wrong.
A fan favorite with the best Twitter account on the team that unfortunately has gone mostly dormant since the incident, Montero was designated for assignment the following morning. At the time, the Cubs were a middling 39-38, still “hungover” from the previous season’s exploits. They played .628 ball from that point forward.
I don’t bring this up to conjure some easy baseball mythos of turning points, though. Montero wasn’t holding the team back, and his words didn’t light a fire under the team (but Arrieta’s numbers in the second half of the season were demonstrably better than the first). The Cubs are a team that, when they realize they’re the Cubs, can utterly destroy you. When they forget, they destroy themselves. The latter happens more than the former. A backup catcher or his righteous anger hardly factors into that.
That this went down against the Nats is coincidental and not causal either. It need not be added to any of the Dusty Baker connection pieces this week as the Cubs and Nationals prepare to square off in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday night.
The shedding of Montero was a statement. This team wasn’t resting on its laurels, and, hungover or not, wasn’t in the mood for anything that might detour it from what should have been a given third consecutive postseason appearance. Montero had just hoisted the organization’s first trophy in 108 years. He hit a grand slam in a playoff game. And in mere hours, his favor dissolved. Nostalgia that was mere months old held no water.
Because these aren’t the 2016 Cubs. Right now, last year means squat. There’s no sense of satisfaction lingering amongst this current group. So as they begin a series with the Nationals, any thoughts of the Cubs yawning through this as hipsters who find the playoffs to be so-last-year is a misconception.
Kyle Hendricks, the Game 1 starter, is as miserable as any tortured genius can be, meaning he’s at his peak at the right time and creating rock operas and parametric equations on the mound. If Jon Lester were the laughing type right now, something would be wrong. John Lackey, pitching out of the bullpen, is still the same John Lackey.
“It eases the nerves a little bit,” Kris Bryant said of his third straight appearance in October. “But they’re still all going to be there.”
Bryant isn’t one to wear his heart on his sleeve. Teammate Anthony Rizzo, on the other hand, was an exceptionally large fretting Little Leaguer in the middle of Game 7 of last year’s World Series.
“Look, you are facing great pitchers in the playoffs,” Rizzo said this week. “It never changes. To be the best, you have to beat the best. You must prove that for 11 wins in the playoffs. You can’t be happy with just a few wins.
“In my opinion, we are the favorites to win it all again. In Bryce Harper’s opinion, Washington is the favorite. Cody Bellinger is probably saying the same about the Dodgers. We are as battle-tested as you can get going back to the playoffs. We have been there and done it. It will be all about that bounce going your way or you are going to get the big hit. That or if you make that big pitch in the big moment.
Two important things Rizzo acknowledges: 1) Playoff baseball is weird and often out of one’s control and 2) The Cubs understand this while having already having been to the mountaintop. And last year means nothing. Just as 108 last years meant nothing last year.
A fan can can comfort himself or herself with 2016, but this team ain’t about that, historic and cool and de-albatrossing as it was. As constructed, this is the stuff dynasties are supposed to be made of. Recall the whole “sustained success” whimsy from Theo Epstein years ago that so many beat writers chuckled at then.
Last year never matters going forward. “It’s really difficult to repeat” doesn’t matter at the moment. An opponent stealing seven bases in a game matters not. An otherwise lovable catcher won’t be baggage. Regardless of outcome, 2017 won’t matter next year when the Cubs should again be in the postseason, even though next year doesn’t matter whatsoever right now.
The names might be mostly the same. The personalities are unchanged.
But these playoffs, this team. It’s all not the same.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.