LOS ANGELES -- A winning homestand -- and a spot atop the National League Central -- followed by their first theme trip of the season.
The Chicago Cubs are starting to look and feel like the Cubs team that took the league by storm under manager Joe Maddon, leading to last fall's World Series title. It may not be a coincidence that the fun off the field has corresponded to the wins on it, as the schedule is finally playing in the Cubs' favor.
"The beginning of the season has been so abstract," Maddon said before leaving on the trip, which includes a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers that begins Friday. "We've had celebrations and rain delays, and then we go to Boston and have the Yankees come here. We've been busy. I didn't want to interfere with any of that."
That's why Maddon chose this weekend to break out his first dress-up road trip, with players donning their best '70s garb in honor of the movie "Anchorman," one of Maddon's favorites. But the reasons for the lack of outward fun until this point also have contributed to an up-and-down start. And every time the Cubs thought they were past the choppy beginning, something else came up. Remember that 18-inning loss to the New York Yankees? That stayed with them for a week. Infielder Ben Zobrist was asked recently to sum up the season to this point. He didn't think long.
"Fatigue," he told Chicago's ESPN 1000. "We're still a little bit fatigued from the offseason. I think we're getting past that, but I think the early part of the season has been fatiguing. Once it gets warm and stays warm and once we get on a track and stay on a track, we're going to get really hot."
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) May 25, 2017
If the Cubs never do heat up completely, we'll look back at the first couple of months differently. Right now, it's had all the elements of a classic championship hangover combined with unforeseen circumstances. The 7-2 homestand -- capped by a 5-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Thursday -- is a start toward the kind of record expected for this team, but that's all it is right now.
"We think [that] will be the worst we play all season," Zobrist said. "We're way better than this."
Maddon concurred, but he also stressed that he didn't break out a theme trip because of the Cubs' slow start. There have been moments that he has used that tactic before, including a time in New York in 2015 when he brought a magician into the clubhouse during a rough stretch of games -- but that was a younger team still learning how to navigate a season. If a true wake-up call is needed for this year's team, it will come later in the season.
"It was just about going to San Diego," Maddon said. "That's all. Back then I thought the time was right for the magician. We needed something to break things up."
Maddon also said he did less outside-the-box stuff in spring training because strength coach Tim Buss "had it covered."
"He didn't need me," Maddon said. "I let Buss do his thing."
So if you noticed the Cubs didn't seem to have as much fun on display as last season, it was mostly a function of circumstances -- though the losses of Dexter Fowler and David Ross also contributed -- and there was no way to match the high of the end of last season. As Maddon often says, it has to happen organically.
"We'll do more, but unless I feel there's a need, it usually happens on its own," Maddon said. "There's usually a trigger."
As for the play on the field, Maddon and Zobrist have been around long enough to know when there is need for worry and when things aren't far from coming together. They both feel the latter is more likely happening than not.
"The ingredients are there," Zobrist said. "We know we can play better and we're starting to."