Some History Is Hard to Repeat

If you ask Cubs fans to describe the 2017 season, many will say, “disappointing.” Perhaps that’s because of the way the season ended, in a completely flat offensive effort in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maybe it’s also because something just looked off about this team all year, and they never fully clicked for whatever reason.

The tunnel vision vantage point may feel somewhat bleak, but stepping back, the panoramic view is pretty damn bright.

For if this season was “disappointing” and yet still yielded a 92-win Central Division title and a playoff run to the NLCS for the third straight year, that’s something to be pretty content with given Cubs history.

There’s that word again: History. As in, the past. As in, last year is over. As in, I think that’s where some of the fans’ disdain for how this season went down began. Here, then, is a good time to remember one of the chief lessons in baseball: No team, game, or season is ever the same.

The Plan worked. 2016 was magical. Not just because of the 108-year World Series drought ending, but in the way it happened. It was as close to an ideal season as any team could have. Literally a dream come true for long-suffering Cubs fans. In addition to having the deepest and most talented team in all of baseball, the Cubs enjoyed a red hot start that carried throughout the whole season save for a rough stretch just before the All-Star break. More importantly, this was a team with the rarity of near complete health all season save for Kyle Schwarber, who’s absence before coming back to be one of the World Series heroes was perfectly filled by the depth and flexibility of his teammates. Throw in the NL MVP, two Gold Glove winners in your starting nine, and two of the five starting pitchers in your rotation finishing second and third in Cy Young Award voting, and you have a recipe for a Championship season. And so it was done. (Not without three exciting series’ in the playoffs capped off by the greatest Game Seven of all time of course, but that’s another story altogether.)

2016 was as close to perfect as it gets. 2017 was not. And that’s ok.

For whatever reason, this year’s team stumbled early and often. The starting pitching wasn’t nearly as sharp, many bats slumped at once, there was a rash of injuries to several key players who missed significant time, the bullpen didn’t always hold serve and the platinum defense of 2016 regressed significantly. It took until after the All Star break for something to finally set right with this group, when they emerged from 5.5 games back on July 15 to win the division at the end of September. But still, something just didn’t look right.

There were notable offensive quirks by many players throughout the year. Kris Bryant hit .295 with 29 homers but only drove in 74 runs. Kyle Schwarber knocked out 30, but only hit .211 and that was due to a surge after coming back from the minors where he was sent after a couple months of living far below the Mendoza line. Addison Russell wasn’t the same, missed time with an injury and didn’t duplicate his production from the year before. Stalwart veteran Ben Zobrist had his struggles, and battled his health all season. Willson Contreras was having a monster year before being sidelined on the DL. Jason Heyward, under much scrutiny after a dreadful ’16, actually managed to hit 30 points higher and improved across the board in every offensive category, and yet still didn’t really pass the eye test and was benched for the second straight year in the playoffs for lack of production. Not that it was just him though, the entire team went flat against the Dodgers, losing four games to one and scoring only eight runs in the five games, all on home runs. The book was closed on 2017 with a major ebb, after not a lot of flow.

As I sit here writing this and listening to the excellent (and in context, very atmospheric) Pearl Jam – Let’s Play Two: Live At Wrigley Field record, I perhaps should be disappointed in the way this season ended, but I’m really not. In fact, I’m encouraged. For a team that battled through a lot of injuries, inconsistent play, individual struggles, and balls-to-the-wall competition in the division from the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals (and earlier, the Pittsburgh Pirates), and still emerge with a third straight trip to the NLCS…well, its something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. So really, 2017 wasn’t all that bad.

Granted, I’d be furious right now had 2016 not happened. In fact, I might start to believe that it never would happen.

In some ways, 2017 sort of felt like playing on house money. Sure I was hoping for a repeat, but baseball is the hardest sport to land a consecutive championship, so expecting one was a little unrealistic, even with the bulk of the 2016 team still here. The good thing however, was there was no pressure anymore. For all of the erroneous Curse believers, it was gone. Mission accomplished, and now we as fans could focus on the present and no longer the forlorn barrage of “what ifs” and “there’s always next year’s.” Cubs fans expect to win now, and make deep playoff runs, and for the third straight year, that’s what happened. Now this team can gear up for 2018 with a renewed focus, new faces on the roster and on the coaching staff (following the firing of pitching coach Chris Bosio yesterday), and perhaps a sense of unfinished business too.

Just remember, no team, game, or season is ever the same.

Four months until Spring Training…

Sources: https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/2017.shtml

https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/2016.shtml

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The Weird Keeps Getting Weirder

Even the unwritten rules are made to be broken.

Take a look at the way bullpens have been used by most teams this postseason for proof of that. The various ploys have worked in some cases, most recently by the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS after a back and forth series battle with the Nationals. But extending some key personnel could have an effect on their NLCS date with the well-rested Cubs.

The pitching matchups will again be the focal point. The Cubs repeat their DS rotation, as Jon Lester anchors the staff with a Game 1 start vs. Kenta Maeda at Wrigley Field. Game 2 is where things get extra interesting as Kyle Hendricks takes the hill for the Cubs vs. in all likelihood, the mighty Clayton Kershaw. Hendricks exited his Game 2 start against the Giants early after taking a liner off his right forearm, but he is 100% and ready to go. Kershaw recently started Game 4 against the Nationals and then appeared out of the bullpen to close Game 5, though he only threw seven pitches in the clinching victory. Kershaw could appear on short rest for Game 5 in LA, or with full rest in Game 6 back at Wrigley. The third game then, takes place at Dodger Stadium and pits Jake Arrieta against either Rich Hill or Julio Urias, with John Lackey starting Game 4 against the other of the Hill/Urias probables.

Both bullpens will of course be factors too, as we’ve seen skippers Joe Maddon and Dave Roberts both play a lot of musical chairs with their options. One notable roster move was made by Maddon, activating LHP Rob Zastryzny as an option out of the pen to play the matchup game against the Dodgers’ several left-handed bats. Like we saw in the Cubs-Giants division series, every small play counts, particularly on defense. The Cubs have the advantage there and will need to lean on that to effectively shut down the Dodger attack. Offensively, the Cubs never fully got going in the DS, at least from some of the heavy hitters you might expect, but they managed to score runs in other ways. Not the least of which was the absolutely fantastic 9th inning comeback in the clinching Game 4. Again, it comes down to never knowing what will happen. It’s worth repeating: Playoff baseball is weird. Really, really, really weird.

So there you have it and here we are. As is well-known, anything can happen in baseball and particularly when it comes to the playoffs, things are impossible to predict. (How many people banked on a Rangers-Red Sox ALCS for example?) So strap in for an exciting series. I’m already on the edge of my seat.

Oh, and this is a side note. Actually it’s a pet peeve. Or more accurately, it’s a major psychotic hatred:

I personally am extremely superstitious in general, and about baseball in particular. I adore baseball history and folklore too. But folks, please stop talking about curses. And goats. And black cats. And all the other completely BS narratives that come with the Cubs’ World Series drought. Aside from some asinine TV commentary, most of this subject matter is spewed as little piss ant pot shots from other team’s fans, or those poor saps who like to launch some schadenfreude for their own personal glee. Enough already.

Yes, it’s a historical fact that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Yes, it’s another historical fact that they haven’t appeared in the World Series since 1945. That is where the facts end. All the talk about curses, goats, et. al. are nothing more than sad, wives tale excuses about why the team has unsuccessfully endeavored to return to the Fall Classic for 71 years and they have disturbingly been woven into the fabric of baseball history. Please stop perpetuating these deplorable cop-outs. It’s bad enough that too many misinformed, disrespectful people use it as endless ammo to annoy and ridicule. It will be great when that no longer will be the case.

Peace, love and baseball.

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?

With the ’32 Title, Yanks’ Record Run Is In Full Swing

On this day in 1932, the Yankees would win their 12th consecutive World Series game, and fourth championship overall as they defeat the Cubs at Wrigley Field, 13-6.

One day after Babe Ruth’s mythical “Called Shot” home run off Cubs pitcher Charlie Root (who vehemently denied the gesture ever happened, although this still shot shows Root’s back was turned during the alleged “call” so he never actually saw it,) the Bronx Bombers would bash out 19 hits en route to the drubbing of the home team. The title would be the Yankees’ first of five championships in the decade, after earning three in the 1920’s, kicking in full gear a long streak of regular World Series appearances (52) and titles (27,) both MLB records to this day.

Sources: http://www.nationalpastime.com

http://www.baseball-reference.com

Photo Credit:

24 in 24 Has Been a Rough Ride

Beginning back on June 17, the Cubs entered a brutal stretch of 24 games in 24 days, with the bulk of those on the road. With six games remaining in that block, it’s been a far from enjoyable marathon.

The 24-game batch got off to a roaring start with a three-game sweep of Pittsburgh. But then St. Louis rolled into town on June 20, sweeping the Cubs in three, and triggering the first four-game losing streak for the Northsiders, capped off by a loss at Miami. After dropping two out of three to the Marlins, the Cubs rebounded with a road sweep of the hapless Reds, only to then be decimated in four straight by the Mets. The Reds came into Wrigley and extracted a little revenge, grabbing two out of three, bringing us up to the current date, a day after the Atlanta Braves steal a win at Wrigley in a makeup game from April.

In all, the Cubs have managed just a 5-13 record in their last 18 games, including two separate four-game losing streaks. What is happening here?

In short, they look tired. It’s no excuse, but over the last few weeks, certain things are very noticeable. First and foremost, the starting pitching, which has been the bread and butter all season, is not nearly as sharp. One through five in the rotation have become prone to ineffectiveness, high pitch counts, walks, and giving up home runs. A lot of home runs in fact. In various times during this stretch the Cardinals, Marlins, Reds and Mets have all bashed Cubs pitchers to 7+ runs in a game. Much of the defense hasn’t looked as sleek-footed either, adding to the struggles. Part of this conundrum can be traced to who’s behind the plate. While rookie phenom Willson Contreras has performed very well in his limited time, it’s a still a small sample size to this point. Miguel Montero has struggled mightily all season both in the field and behind the plate, and with a long stint on the DL one may wonder if he’s been really hurt all season. That leaves 39-year-old David Ross, who has been highly touted this year, and for good reason. The simple fact is the best version of this Cubs team, at least defensively, is when Ross is on the field. The snag there is you just can’t play Ross daily, and now he’s on the 7-day DL for concussion protocol. With a history of concussions in his career, there’s no telling how another bell-ringing could affect ‘ol Gramps.

Offensively there has been a lot of inconsistency as well. Whether that’s partially due to injuries (Dexter Fowler’s absence has been extremely impactful) or virtually a new lineup every day,  it’s hard to tell. There have been some bright spots: Rookies Albert Almora Jr, and Willson Contreras have begun their MLB careers with distinction, and Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant continue to slug well.

The good news: The Cubs still hold an 8 game lead in the NL Central, and are 19 games over .500 for the season. As we’re seeing, it’s great they got off to such a roaring start and built that cushion, because things change faster than people think in the game of baseball. More good news: All the above is correctable. Players will get healthy, pitching and defense can get sharper, and the bats can find consistency. It’s not a question of if.

There’s a whole half of baseball left to be played. Besides, I’m sure most Cubs fans would rather they struggle in June-July than September-October, right?

Milestone for Gramps Is Just Another Contribution

In the fourth inning of yesterday’s 6-2  win over the visiting Phillies, veteran catcher David Ross blasted his 100th career homer, a 3-run, 417 foot rocket out of Wrigley Field, sending the home dugout and 38,000-plus fans into a frenzy.

 “The boys were excited, I was excited,” Ross said. “My favorite part while this has been going on is rounding second base and looking in the dugout. It makes me smile every time seeing everybody so happy for me and counting down for me. They’re as happy as I am. That makes me feel good.”

The new milestone was one of three 2016 Bucket List items for Ross, affectionately known as “Gramps” by his teammates and fans, in his final season before retirement.

As a journeyman backup catcher who’s long been known as an outstanding defensive player but not the greatest hitter, reaching the century mark in homers is a sizable accomplishment. For Ross is a throwback type to the old days when catchers were regarded as the field generals, defense-first players who called great games, mentally and spiritually guided the pitching staffs and terrorized opposing baserunners. 100 homers is nothing to scoff at from such a player. But nor is it a fluke.

“He brings so much more to us and to the game than just being a backup catcher,” says Jon Lester. “He makes our clubhouse better, he makes our guys better. He knows how to go about pushing buttons with certain guys and getting the best out of them. I know that’s true for myself. He knows how to say the right things without going too far.”

Ross’ swan song season has been nothing short of terrific to this point. In just 25 games so far, he sits among the league leaders in Defensive WAR, Assists, Stolen Base percentage and Range Factor, all categories that effectively measure a catcher’s performance. His bat isn’t too shabby either, as he’s hitting a solid .254 with 4 homers and 17 runs batted in. A noticeable increase in walks, long at-bats and sacrifices have rounded out his endless contributions to the Cubs’ early success. In addition, the extremely likable, always humble, team-first Ross provides immense value to this Cubs team both on and off the field, and has developed into a fan and league favorite.

“I’m proud to contribute to a good team,” Ross said. “None of us like to fail. Failing is not fun. I had a lot of failure at the plate last year. You’ve just got to keep working and you never know what’s going to happen the next at-bat, the next month or the next year. You have to keep working hard and trying your best. That’s what I’ve learned over my 14 years is, you know what, I’m going to go out there and put my best foot forward and play hard for my teammates.”

Catch a no-hitter? Check. Hit that 100th home run? Check.

We all know what that third Bucket List item for this season is.

Sources: http://www.cubs.mlb.com

Yet Another Historical Parallel for the 2016 Cubs

It’s been a rather magical start to the 2016 season for the Chicago Cubs, with many eerie historical parallels that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Tonight, another notch in the history gunbelt was created, as the Cubs now have the best run differential since the 1905 New York Giants.

2005-06-29-moonlight

Why is this particularly significant? Well, one of the players on that Giants team was none other than Archibald “Moonight” Graham, of Field of Dreams fame. In the movie, it was stated Graham played for the Giants in 1922, when in reality, he played in one game, minus an at-bat, in 1905.

History in the making continues…