At one point Saturday at Wrigley Field, knowing the Cubs were headed to the postseason no matter what happened on that sunny afternoon, I began thinking about this year's very first game.
When I was sitting in section 202, looking out at half-finished bleachers covered with tarps depicting Ernie Banks, in a ballpark without enough restrooms.
That day seems like it was about three years ago, doesn't it? That night, the Cubs' brand-spanking-new $155 million pitcher, Jon Lester, the possessor of the biggest contract in franchise history, stunk out the joint. He lasted just four innings and the Cubs offense posted just five singles in a 3-0 loss to the Cardinals.
Did you sit down after that dispiriting loss and think we'd be discussing postseason plans a little less than six months later? I sure didn't. (And no, you didn't either.)
So much has happened to transform this franchise over the last six months, from completing the bleacher reconstruction (an amazing job was done on that project, incidentally), to the blossoming of farm system products (or trade acquisitions) Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, to the fantastic season of Jake Arrieta, that it does seem as if the Cubs have squeezed many more than 155 games in between that chilly April night at a Wrigley Field that was still an active construction site and this evening, where ESPN will complete its 2015 Sunday Night Baseball schedule right where it began (and with a welcome new addition to its broadcast team, Jessica Mendoza).
This year's team fell under .500 at 1-2 by losing in Colorado after winning the year's second game behind a stellar performance by Jake Arrieta, a portent of things to come, as it turned out. That 1-2 record is the only time the Cubs were sub-.500 this year, the first time since 2004 that any Cubs team has had one game under as its low-water mark for the season.
This season has so many memorable moments, as does any playoff season for any team, that it's hard to distill everything down into one time, one place that years from now will say, "That was 2015!"
Think back to where we were entering that game. The Cubs had just been swept by the horrid Phillies and been no-hit by Cole Hamels. They were 11½ games out of first place and had lost nine of their last 14 games. Kyle Hendricks struggled that night and after former Cub DJ LeMahieu singled in two runs in the fourth, the Cubs trailed 4-0.
Then they rallied for six in that inning, in a frame that neatly symbolized this season. There wasn't one big blow: five different Cubs (Bryant, Russell, Jorge Soler, Chris Denorfia and Starlin Castro) all drove in runs. The Cubs nursed a 7-4 lead into the ninth, but Jason Motte (in his last closing situation before Joe Maddon returned Hector Rondon to the role) and Rafael Soriano gave up four runs, the last two on a homer to Carlos Gonzalez, his second of the game. The Cubs trailed 8-7 to a team that had already sunk to the basement of the N.L. West. What would a fourth straight loss to a last-place team do to Maddon's young squad?
Dexter Fowler singled with one out. It took only three more pitches to send the Wrigley Field crowd into ecstasy. David Ross hit a fly ball to center field on the first pitch he saw, a ball that might have been a home run had it been hit earlier that night, before the wind had died.
Bryant took ball one and then launched a walkoff homer, no wind help needed, the first Cubs walkoff homer that won a game the Cubs were trailing since Aramis Ramirez did it against the Brewers in 2007, a home run that sent that year's Cubs on a long run of winning.
So did that one. They did lose the next day -- so did the 2007 Cubs -- but this year's squad is 38-19 since Bryant's walkoff, tied with the Pirates for the best record in the National League since that date. The game is one of 12 walkoff wins for the Cubs this year, the most since at least 1945 (baseball-reference's boxscore data is incomplete before then).
You'd probably like another look at that homer, I'd think. Here you go!
And that's just one of the reasons this team is so likeable. The way they win. The way every single member of this team contributes, from Arrieta, Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the leaders and stars, to guys like Jonathan Herrera and Matt Szczur, men who have performed supporting roles and won't be on the playoff roster but have helped win games nevertheless.
This has been kind of a stream-of-consciousness remembrance of a remarkable year. How do I feel about the Cubs' 2015 season?
We're in bonus time here. As I mentioned earlier, not one person here predicted the Cubs would be where they are now, back in March. Sure, many of us thought the team would be improved, likely would finish slightly over .500 and if everything went right, maybe could contend for one of the wild-card spots.
Many things went right with this team. Not everything -- the back end of the rotation has been a tire fire and the bullpen has been shaky at times -- but enough went right that the Cubs not only got that wild-card spot, but blew away the competition. They're going to likely finish 10 games ahead of their nearest challenger for the second spot, and even though that means they'll have to win the one-and-done game on the road, it's postseason nevertheless, and as we found out last season, if you're a wild-card team that gets hot at the right time, you can take things all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.
Oh, yes. Feelings. Not ignoring that. In past Cubs playoff seasons I've given over almost all my emotions to the team and the playoff run, and each time had those emotions ripped apart, many times in soul-crushing fashion. I don't have to (nor do I want to) remind you of those occasions, as you have almost certainly felt the same way.
This time? The way this team is constructed, this could be, as Jackson Browne once sang, "the fitful dreams of some greater awakening." On the other hand... once your team is in the tournament, you surely want them to win it. On the other, other hand... if the Cubs don't win it all this year, the 2015 season will still be a tremendous success, laying the groundwork for future championships.
There's a lot in this particular postseason for us as fans, too. Management and the players will prepare as they need to for each opponent, but every Cubs fan bears quite a bit of scar tissue from previous defeats and rivalries.
Get past the Pirates in the one-and-done game and quite a few of those dragons can be slain. Cardinals? Oh, how sweet it would be to crush the Cubs' biggest rival in what would be their first-ever postseason meeting. Mets and Dodgers? Yeah, we owe them both one, don't you think?
Go Cubs. Anything can happen in October. Let's win this thing.