If it’s not tempting fate too much, not begging for a lightning bolt to zap your favorite Cub, I think we can agree that the team’s season has been ridiculously easy.
The Cubs have spent one day out of first place in the National League Central Division. As in, one freaking day. On April 8, after a loss to the Diamondbacks in the fourth game of the season, they trailed undefeated Pittsburgh by a game. The bums. They bounced back with a victory the next day to move into a tie for first. Since then, it has been more beer pong than baseball.
They clinched the division with 16 games left in the season, which is like finishing the test before everyone else and being forced to sit at your desk for a half hour.
That’s not to suggest the Cubs got to where they are now without effort. There has been sweat. There might even have been some blood along the way. But tears? No. There has been blood, sweat and themed T-shirts.
This is how charmed it has been: In any other season, in any other world, $184 million man Jason Heyward and his .228 average would have been booed out of Wrigley Field. But be on pace for 100-plus victories, as the Cubs have been all year, and every fan turns into Gandhi. And it has been like this: David Ross, who has hit a combined .203 in two seasons with the Cubs, gets a hero’s welcome every time he comes to the plate at Wrigley because he’s 39, because he’s retiring after the season and because, well, something. Imagine if the Cubs were a .500 team and Maddon kept sending him to the batter’s box.
So, yeah, life has been very, very easy.
Cue the ominous music: Too easy?
It’s the kind of question that only gets asked when a postseason trip has been wrapped up early, when a team has gone through a Saharan World Series drought and when you’re looking for blemishes on a supermodel. What’s the difference between a mole and a beauty mark? Discuss.
A better question might be whether it helps, come playoff time, for a team to have had stern challenges along the way. The Cubs certainly can point to Kyle Schwarber’s early season knee injury, which ended his year, as a real downer. But competitively, they reacted to it as if it were a mere scratch. They struggled in parts of June and July but came back from the All-Star break recharged. Jake Arrieta hasn’t been the 2015 model, not that he or anyone else could have been, and the Cubs have still been great.
And that’s it, as far as issues. Forty-one games over .500 with an 18-game division lead as of Friday. If you’re looking for controversy (or a pair of scissors), contact Chris Sale. Not even the acquisition of closer Aroldis Chapman, who served a suspension for a domestic-abuse incident, caused much angst.
Whether it would have toughened up the Cubs to have had another team challenging them is a moot point. They are facing the baseball equivalent of what an undefeated NFL team faces going into the playoffs or an unbeaten college basketball team faces going into the NCAA Tournament: Is it better to lose a game along the way to relieve some of the pressure? Answer: Too late to find out!
The truth is that no matter how difficult the hardships could have been for the Cubs, those hardships would have been a faint imitation of the pressure that will bear down on the team in the postseason. There has to be a cosmic price to be paid here. These are the Cubs and those are 107 years of futility. It should be hard.
Having 31 comeback victories, including seven walk-offs, as the Cubs have had this season, can only help in the postseason. There’s muscle memory associated with that. But you can’t simulate the raging furnace of the playoffs in July or August.
It’s possible that the Cubs will cruise through October the way they cruised through most of the other months. But it seems unlikely.
We don’t know how they’ll handle the stress. We just don’t. They are the clear favorites to win the World Series. They have been the clear favorites all season and have carried that weight as if it were a Nerf ball. But this is different. People are expecting them to win it all, and people are expecting them to collapse in breathtaking fashion.
For all my playful poking at the Grandpa Rossy Phenomenon, maybe that’s where Ross will play his biggest role. Perhaps a veteran with a World Series ring can say just the right thing at just the right moment to a young teammate who is on the verge of buckling under the enormity of the playoffs. And things get easier.
But easy? Hard to see that happening.