71 Years In the Making, a Dream Is Ready To Be Real

“…what do you become when you walk through that door in center field?”

“We sleep,” says Chick Gandil finally.

“And wait,” says Happy Felsch.

“And dream,” says Joe Jackson. “Oh, how we dream…”

And so have Cubs fans also dreamed long. For 71 years. Or actually, 108. Although the context of Jackson, Gandil and Felsch’s above remarks were fictional (from W.P. Kinsella’s amazing Shoeless Joe, from which Field of Dreams was based), their poignancy remains relevant here. For lifelong Cubs fans, we have waited. And dreamed. I cannot recall how many times as a kid, or even as recently as two days ago, I dreamed I’d one day hear the words “the Cubs have won the pennant!” from some official voice. A broadcaster, perhaps. Or a news anchor. Any voice other than the one in my own head.

And then it happened.

By virtue of Kyle Hendricks’ masterpiece and some thunderously received runs, the Cubs beat the Dodgers 5-0 in Game 6 of the NLCS to clinch their first pennant since 1945. Rejoice, hallelujah, amen. Fans of other teams, save for possibly the Cubs’ opponent in the World Series, cannot understand what it’s been like. Nor would we really want them to. It’s been part of what makes the Cubs “our” team. But alas, one of the very reasons the Cubs have been able to do what no Cubs team could in the past 71 years is because they simply didn’t care. Well, not about the past, anyway. Sure there is ridiculous talent and unique energy on this team that has become the unequivocal best in baseball, but where past teams may have allowed pressure to mount and the “oh here we go again!” feeling to creep in if things started going south, this team did not waver in such ways. And here they are in the World Series.

Boy, baseball sure is funny. The Cubs as we all know haven’t won a World Series since 1908. The Cleveland Indians haven’t won since 1948. That’s the two longest championship droughts in baseball, a combined 176 years. While Major League Baseball may have yearned for a Cubs-Red Sox date in the World Series, featuring endless narratives about the teams Theo Epstein built pitted against one another, one long losing streak snapped with the other in-progress, the two oldest ballparks, etc. they got the next best scenario: Two classic, old-time franchises with the longest and largest World Series snakebites.

As has been the case all playoffs for the Cubs, pitching will be the focal point. But Cleveland has ridden the coattails of their stalwart arms themselves, to impressive feats along with timely hitting to arrive in this series red hot and hungry. The matchups look pretty intriguing too: NLCS Co-MVP Jon Lester takes the bump for the Cubs in Game 1 in Cleveland, going against their ace Corey Kluber, an 18-game winner this season. Jake Arrieta gets the call for Game 2, allowing Kyle Hendricks to rest fully for Game 3. Arrieta takes on Trevor Bauer, while Hendricks will face Josh Tomlin back at Wrigley Field. Rugged veteran John Lackey will go in Game 4 for the Cubs and although no starter for that game has been announced yet by Indians skipper Terry Francona, there is a good possibility that Kluber could go again on short rest as he did in the ALCS.

Offensively the Cubs really found their stride again in the final three games of the NLCS after a too-lengthy stretch (including the NLDS) of some quiet bats. By way of one little bunt from Ben Zobrist in Game 4 of the NLCS, something clicked. For just about everyone that is. This is the Cubs team I saw all summer was the collective sigh among Cubs fans. What’s more, is that it’s looking like slugger Kyle Schwarber may join the active roster in a DH role for the Series. Not only would this be a terrific morale jolt for the Cubs, it provides them with a bat that has game-changing ability, even if he hasn’t faced big league arms in over 5 months. The fact that Schwarber could be ready to go after a dreadful knee injury in April is a testament to his work ethic and, perhaps intangibly, the right piece to the puzzle at the right time. Conversely in Cleveland, their aggressive baserunning and some very timely homers charged their playoff attack. Look for them to test Lester and Arrieta in particular, with the threat to steal or take extra bases. Cubs catchers and outfielders however can counter that threat, and the stellar infield defense will need to continue. Beyond those factors, the head to head chess match between two of the best managers in the game, Crazy Joe Maddon and Terry Francona, should be enjoyable to watch.

Whatever happens, one long title slump is about to end. It should be one for the ages to see how it happens.

Source: Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella, 221.

Playoff Baseball Is Really, Really Weird.

The Chicago Cubs were the best team in baseball.

Yes, were. In the regular season that is. The northsiders enjoyed a stellar 103-58-1 campaign, winning the NL Central Division by a whopping 17.5 games. They boasted a pitching staff that had the lowest ERA and WHIP in all of baseball, and who’s number two and number five starters were so good that not only are they both in Cy Young contention, but it forced the reigning NL Cy Young winner to be slotted down to number three for the playoffs. They were also the best defensive team in baseball, and have possibly three Gold Glove winners in the mix. Oh, the NL MVP may be in there too. In all, that’s a rather impressive body of work.

None of it means anything anymore.

Well, sort of.

The Cubs will need to count on all the above and fire on all cylinders in the NLDS against the Giants, who come into Wrigley Field for Game 1 on the strength of a stellar 3-0 win in the NL Wild Card game over the Mets in New York. The Giants rode the coattails of ace Madison Bumgarner, who, continuing his career M.O. of postseason excellence, fired a four-hit shutout to advance his squad to the DS. This sets up a really interesting, and nerve-wracking, matchup.

The pitching probables are the key here. Jon Lester gets the go for the Central Division Champs in Game 1, while the Giants counter with nastyman Johnny Cueto, who is likely to appear again in Game 5, if needed. In between, there will be a push-pull matchup in Game 2 with The Professor, Kyle Hendricks, on the bump for the Cubs, against former Cub and prodigious pushbroom-possessing Jeff Samardzija. This here will be where things get screwy. Game 3 moves to San Francisco, with Bumgarner on the hill. If the first two games are split, then this would be just what the Giants want, a chance to take the lead at home with their ace on the mound. The Cubs, fortunately, have an ace of their own to roll out in Jake Arrieta. Game 4 would see Matt Moore square off against playoff-tested veteran John Lackey, and a possible Cueto/Bumgarner combination against Lester in Game 5.

The easier-said-than-done philosophy for the Cubs will “simply” be to take care of business at home. They have the more dynamic offense, and so in all games, if the Cubs can get to the Giants’ bullpen as early as possible, then that will be an advantage. Defense is another big factor and one of the Cubs’ greatest strengths. Intangibly-speaking, and there are always tons of these in playoff baseball, is the time off. The Cubs haven’t seen any real game action in five days and in a long season where rhythm can be as important as anything, there’s always the possibility of a little disruption in flow. This would be where Cubs skipper Crazy Joe Maddon, with his regular workouts and irregular philosophies, can only help.

Baseball is weird, guys. And playoff baseball is even weirder, to the Nth degree. Unlike other playoffs in sports like basketball and football where talent often wins out, the best team in baseball doesn’t always win. There are just too many variables and the very bizarre nature of playoff baseball itself makes it completely unpredictable. The Cubs were unequivocally the best team in baseball in 2016, and anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the game really can’t argue otherwise. But that was then. Like the saying goes, ‘two things in baseball don’t mean shit: Last year and yesterday.’

That being said, let’s just see what happens right now then, shall we?

The Professor Runs a Strict Class

Before the season began, my prognosis for Kyle Hendricks was simple: That he could be one of the most effective number five starters in all of baseball.

As of September 13, he’s one of the best starters in all of baseball, period.

“The Professor” as he has come to be known from his intensely cerebral preparation before each start, and surgical-like approach to every pitch, has been nothing short of stellar this season. In his most recent start, Hendricks took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in St. Louis, before having an 0-2 pitch blasted into the right field bleachers by Jeremy Hazelbaker. Though his date with baseball history was, for the time, postponed, the shine on yet another dominant performance was hardly dulled. It was his 20th consecutive start giving up three or fewer runs, adding to his MLB-low ERA of 2.03.

Far from a power arm, Hendricks employs scholastic tactics to outwit opposing hitters, with a a variety of speeds (though he rarely tops 90mph on his fastball), and precision locating. The result is a chess match which, more often than not, the Dartmouth alum wins.

Predictions be damned.

The whispers of Hendricks joining the Cy Young Award conversation have now become screams, and for good reason. In addition to his staggering ERA and constant ability to get his team deep into games, Hendricks’ latest win was the 30th of his career and 15th of the season, putting him squarely among the league leaders in that more-sexy-than-vital category. In all, it adds up to a brilliant season for the young right-hander, drawing him more and more comparisons to hall of famer Greg Maddux every day. While that is certainly high praise and a lot of hyperbole given that Maddux did Maddux things for 23 years while Hendricks is only in his third, the approach and execution are certainly comparable.

With a Central Division title nearly within the Cubs’ grasp, followed by the playoffs, it’s sure to be an exciting fall for The Professor and his class.