“Oh, you know, I’m so bad at drawing kind of lines in the sand and things. Again, for me, it’s about putting this one in the wastebasket, come back and play tomorrow. It’s one day at a time. I’ve preached that all season long. We have a very good pitcher pitching tomorrow, so today. We’re able to win that game tomorrow, and the narrative’s going to change entirely. So I can’t get so dramatic about it.”
–Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon last night
The Chicago Cubs went wire to wire really, spent just one day out of first place this season, all the way back on April 8. A defeat that day dropped the Cubs to 3-1, a game out of first place in the National League Central. They won the next five and never came close to looking back.
But now? The Cubs aren’t looking back, necessarily, but that is only because they’re chasing. The Los Angeles Dodgers have claimed a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 National League Championship Series, which means the Cubs have lost control of a season during which they’ve always had the edge. You want to be the best team in baseball? You want to end more than a century of futility? You take the bad with the good. Embrace the target.
Here’s the truth: now is when we find out what the Cubs are really made of, whether they have the mettle to end not only a century of failure but to merely win a championship.
Cubs president, Theo Epstein, has been through this before, of course, but don’t let him kid you. On the inside, Epstein is fighting the doubt the way everyone else does. Theo’s wire-to-wire Red Sox fell behind the Cleveland Indians by a 3-1 count in the 2007 American League Championship Series, and former Boston pitcher Curt Schilling stood before his locker following a Game 4 loss and acknowledged the Red Sox hadn’t really been tested all year. Boston responded by winning the next seven, including Game 5 in Cleveland, and rumbled to its second World Series of the Epstein Era.
That came four years after 2004, of course, which is far more relevant to these Cubs. The Red Sox hadn’t won in 86 years. They trailed the Yankees by a 3-0 series score in the ALCS. Boston then rumbled to eight straight victories and its first World Series title since World War I, a sequence triggered by a stolen base from pinch-runner Dave Roberts, the man who now guides these Los Angeles Dodgers.
Take a good look: those 2004 Red Sox are splattered all across these 2016 playoffs, and they all have their stories to tell. Epstein. Roberts. Terry Francona, manager of a Cleveland Indians team that hasn’t won the World Series since 1948. They all understand the brittle nature of playoff baseball because they all have lived it, together, having reached the top of the climb only after dangling from their fingernails.
Again, here’s the point: unless you are the Yankees of the late 1990s, baseball is not the kind of game you can fully control from early April to late October. Even then, the 1996 Yankees had to overcome a 2-0 World Series deficit against an Atlanta Braves team that seemed to be methodically marching to a championship. The Braves blew it. The Yankees prevailed. New York ended up winning four championships. Those might Braves of the ’90s only won one and never won again.
The Cubbies? Do not underestimate the magnitude of a loss this postseason. Huge isn’t nearly big enough. This is supposed to be The Year in Chicago, and the Cubs have done nothing to dispel that. They won 103 regular season games, easily the best in baseball. Epstein uncharacteristically paid a hefty price at the trading deadline for closer Aroldis Chapman, acknowledging the urgency. (“If not now, when?” he asked.) All of it depended on winning in October.
Now the Cubs are losing, again, and 108 years of blunders have seeped into their consciousness as if somebody just kicked up the dust. Are they mentally tough enough to handle it? Are they equipped? Or are they merely and ultimately chokers, like most every other Cubs team since the early 20th Century? The mighty Cubs are batting just .185 this postseason, eighth among the 10 postseason entrants, dead last among the eight clubs who played in the Division Series. They have been shut out two games in a row. And they are now closer to elimination than they are to a championship.
Wait `til next year? Please. Even that old refrain doesn’t work anymore. Next year will be even harder.
For these Cubs, it is quite literally championship or bust.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.