CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs embraced the target and ran away with the best record in baseball.
Now that the playoffs are starting, the final mark is in sight. And if there is a little added pressure to nail it, well, manager Joe Maddon says bring it on.
“Those words pressure and expectations are positive words,” he said Tuesday. “You never want to be involved or associated with a situation that doesn’t have the certain level of expectations. … I think it’s great. Those are the two words that should bring out the best in your performance.”
The Cubs are seeking the biggest prize of all after leading the majors with 103 wins and giving their long-suffering fans hope this might be the year to end a World Series title drought dating to 1908. They will face the New York Mets or San Francisco Giants in an NL Division Series that begins Friday at Wrigley Field — what they hope will be the next step toward the ultimate prize.
A century-old championship hex could be a burden, but if one thing has defined this team as much as its sheer dominance, that would be its poise.
Nothing seems to rattle this bunch. Not tight games, not a season-ending injury to emerging star Kyle Schwarber, not a 1-9 stretch in June, and not infielder Tommy La Stella leaving the team and contemplating retirement at midseason.
The Cubs have steadily powered on, and that might be the most impressive play for a team that delivered more than a few this year.
Whether it’s something innate in the players or a product of the atmosphere, this has been one cool bunch.
“We certainly, like most organizations, spend a lot of time trying to assess guys’ makeup and what makes them tick, and the characteristics, how they might respond to adversity certainly and how they respond to pressure,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But I think there’s something to be said for the culture in an organization and a clubhouse, the tone set by the manager and coaching staff, the veteran players, that allows guys to be themselves even in big moments.”
Talent, of course, helps, and the Cubs have no shortage of that. With two MVP candidates in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and two NL Cy Young Award possibilities in Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks along with last year’s winner Jake Arrieta, they are as loaded as any team in recent memory.
Chicago led the majors in ERA and finished third in scoring. And the Cubs were particularly good late in games.
They pulled out 14 wins in their final at-bat, including a victory at Cincinnati in the season-finale, and only two teams scored more runs from the seventh inning on.
“It’s just a message you bring out there every day,” Maddon said. “And I think it’s how you go about your business that promotes that kind of an attitude. You have to have good players. But beyond that, you have to kind of nurture the fact that you play nine innings hard every night and that anything can happen. The one thing I really wanted to get across is something’s going to go bad. Something’s going to go wrong and it happens to everybody. But how do you react to that moment (is what) sets you apart.”
Maddon, of course, is known for promoting a relaxed and fun atmosphere. Whether it’s onesie road trips or zoo animals visiting the ballpark, players have come to expect the unexpected.
It keeps them on their toes. But it also keeps them loose.
It’s an approach that has served the Cubs well in their two seasons under Maddon. They broke out in 2015 with 97 wins and a trip to the NL Championship Series, but they’re no longer the upstart. They showed up to spring training this year with a roster bolstered by the offseason additions of Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist and a catchy slogan coined by their manager — “embrace the target.” The phrase went on a T-shirt and the Cubs wore it well. Now, the bullseye is on them, and a championship is in sight.
“Pressure’s a good thing,” Epstein said. “Those are the situations you want. You seek it out. I don’t think the pressure’s going to bother this group.”