In 2015, the Cubs muddled around .500 until late July, then went on a spectacular run that brought them a 97-win wild-card season and postseason wins over two division rivals. (We’ll leave the 2015 NLCS loss out of this, I think.)
That spectacular run continued through all of the 2016 regular season (save an inexplicable 5-15 run midseason), which was the best most of us had seen in our lifetimes. All sorts of team records were set.
It culminated in the ending of the longest drought in North American sports history. At last, all of us saw what we had been waiting a lifetime for, a World Series championship.
Not that it was easy. The Cubs were a miracle four-run rally away from having to face Johnny Cueto in Game 5 of the division series. Then they got shut out twice in a row in the NLCS before winning three straight and going to the World Series on the strength of a fantastic performance by Kyle Hendricks. And then they won three straight elimination games in the World Series, becoming the first team to do that in 31 years, and the first to do it on the road in 37 years.
And the title didn’t come until after they blew a lead in Game 7 and had to pull the game out in extra innings after a providential rain delay and an inspirational clubhouse speech.
Now if that doesn’t give a team confidence that it can win no matter what, I don’t know what would.
This season has been a slog at times. There were times in the first half of 2017 that I wondered where the champion Cubs had gone. They got swept out of a six-game West Coast trip, had four losing streaks of at least four games by the first week of June and the final game before the All-Star break was a humiliating 14-3 loss to the Pirates, who they led by only a game and a half. They were two games under .500 and 5½ games back of the first-place Brewers at the break, and reasonable people wondered whether they might sell off impending free agents at the trading deadline. Theo Epstein says he even got close to doing just that.
The four-day All-Star break seemed to re-energize this team. A six-game winning streak just out of the break had the Cubs looking very much like the 2016 version. They took over first place July 26 and, except for one day tied (August 11) held it alone for the remainder of the season. They later put together another six-game streak and one of seven and had the National League’s best record (49-25) after the break, second in all of baseball only to the Indians, and four games better after the break than the team they’re about to face in the division series. They completed the season on a 15-4 run. Over the same span the Nats went 9-10 despite facing only one team (Dodgers) with a winning record.
This postseason doesn’t feel quite like last year’s, but then, nothing ever will. There will (hopefully) never again be a long championship drought to bust, never again all the national media memes about “lovable losers,” never again will we walk precisely the same path we did in 2016.
The 2017 Cubs showed us in the second half that they can be as good as last year’s championship squad. Nevertheless, they are flawed. The bullpen has been shaky at times. The starting rotation, better in the second half, has still had its issues. And there have been periods where the offense has disappeared.
And so I return to what I said above about confidence. This team has more postseason experience than just about any of its opponents. It has multiple players who have won multiple World Series rings. It has a manager who isn’t afraid to do unconventional things to help his team wins. (Sometimes those things drive us nuts, but they almost always turn out to be the right choices.)
Repeating as World Series champions won’t be easy. It hasn’t been done since 2000, when the Yankees defeated the Mets for their third straight title. Only twice since then has the defending champion even gotten back to the Series: in 2001, when the Yankees lost to the Diamondbacks, and in 2009, when the Phillies lost to the Yankees.
As we learned last year, winning this thing is hard. Really hard. The fans of the Cleveland Indians, inheritors of the “longest drought” title the Cubs wore for more than a century, know precisely how hard this is. They’re back for another shot at the ring, the team from Cleveland, and once again they have a pretty good chance at ending that drought. I said last year that if the Indians returned to the World Series and weren’t playing the Cubs, I’d be a big fan, and I certainly will hold to that promise. Right now, though, it looks like a World Series rematch is quite possible. In that case, sorry, Cleveland fans, I’m going to have to hope you’ll lose again.
But if the Cubs don’t win it this year, I feel confident they’ll have more chances at winning over the next several seasons. They do seem well-positioned to make a good run at it over the next four weeks, though. My advice, then (which I hope to follow personally): just enjoy the ride.