Joe Maddon deserves much of the credit for guiding a team with the highest expectations through a spectacular regular season. But he knows he’s also the right guy at the right place at the right time.
“I feel privileged to be here. I mean that sincerely. I’m not trying to suck up to anybody,” Maddon said Friday at Wrigley Field during the celebration of the Cubs’ National League Central championship. “It’s a privilege to be here. The way these folks [fans] react to us on a daily basis, to have the privilege of playing in this ballpark. It’s different.
“This is unique. I’ve heard it before, ‘Everybody should be a Cub at some point of their major-league expistence.’ There’s nothing like it. I agree. And I’m not going to put that out there as a mass recruiting [ploy] or I’ll get in trouble. But it’s true.
That was a sentiment often espoused by former Cub Mark DeRosa, who still has a healthy appreciation for being a Cub to this day. “Everyone should get a chance to put on a Cub uniform for a day,” DeRosa said.
“It wasn’t Mark, but it was somebody — not a lifetime Cub, but a Cub nonetheless,” Maddon said. “And he said that to me and I didn’t understand it. Now I do.”
The influx of talent and the hiring of Maddon — probably in that order — obviously have sparked the turnaround for the Cubs. The Cubs are 191-114 (.626) in Maddon’s two seasons with the team. They were 200-286 (.412) in 2012-14. So with 15 games to go, they still have a chance to win more games in the past two seasons than they did in the previous three.
Jon Lester is having the best season of his 11-year major-league career (17-4, 2.40 ERA, 167 ERA-plus, 1.016 WHIP. He’s been on six playoff teams before this one, winning the World Series with the Red Sox in 2007 and 2013. He said “this club is so unique because we’re so young.” But he also likes the chemistry of the club house.
“Guys give a [darn],” Lester said. “That’s my thing — guys care. Everybody wants each other to do well. Everybody pushes each other. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of.
“You can make up for mistakes. You can make up for a lack of talent. You can make up for a lot of things when guys care. And from top to bottom — everybody in that dug out, everybody in that front office cares.”
Once the division-title celebration is over, the reality of postseason expectations will quickly take over: If this team doesn’t win the World Series — or at least the National League pennant — 2016 will not be known as the year the Cubs won the NL Central. It’ll be known as the year the Cubs had their best chance to win the World Series since 1945 and didn’t.
The Cubs (94-53) entered Saturday’s games with the best record in baseball — six games ahead of the Washington Nationals. But their dominant run through the National League might not be a factor in the postseason.
In the last 30 years, six National League teams have finished six games ahead of the rest of the pack and none of them won the World Series. In fact, only the 2004 Cardinals, who won 105 games, nine more than the runner-up Braves (96-66), even reached the World Series. The last NL team to be that far in front in the regular season and win it all was the 1986 Mets (100-62), who were six games up on the rest of the league, and still needed a near-miracle to win the World Series.
“You’ve got to be hot at the right time,” Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said. “Going into October you’ve got to be ready the first playoff series. You could always get swept by a hot team coming in.
“We’ve got to get our guys to work. But I don’t think that’s going to be tough with this group. The guys come in every day. They enjoy working hard. We enjoy putting the work in. It should be hard to stay sharp.”
Anthony Rizzo and Travis Wood are the only players remaining from Cub teams that lost 101 games in 2012 and 96 in 2013. But Rizzo said he doesn’t reflect back on those bad old days.
“Why would I do that?” he said.
Uh, for perspective, maybe — to appreciate how far you’ve come?
“Never,” Rizzo said. “I look back and think about all the moves we made to get better. We tried to win every day, even when we weren’t good. And obviously it’s way more fun when you win.”