Been there, done that: 'Underdog' Cubs feeling no pressure in repeat quest

WASHINGTON -- At a team dinner in Washington on Wednesday, Chicago Cubs reliever Brian Duensing couldn’t remember who proposed the toast -- mostly because it wasn’t that memorable. The Cubs were watching the National League wild-card game in a relaxed setting.

“It was no big deal,” Duensing said. “Next thing I know, everyone was raising their glass.”

The Cubs toasted to their upcoming journey in the 2017 playoffs, but there’s little doubt nothing will top what they accomplished in 2016. No amount of pressure will compare to breaking the 108-year championship drought -- and that is something the Cubs are relying on this time around.

Could there be any greater irony than if the team that couldn’t win one World Series in 108 years won two in two years?

“That would be something,” lefty Mike Montgomery said.

The Cubs looked like anything but defending champions in the first half of this season, but they had the best record in the National League in the second half. Now they enter their division series against the Washington Nationals with at least two other things going for them: They have experience and they are underdogs.

“Experience equals knowing,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I think that’s important to understand. That’s what good experience really is. I want us to be eager as opposed to anxious. I think semantics matter.”

The narrative for the Cubs heading into the postseason is pretty simple: Been there, done that. They don’t have home-field advantage against the other two division winners -- like they did last season, when they dominated the competition from start to finish -- but it’s not a big deal. Nothing is to this team.

“We have history here with this group in October,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Good history. Good feelings. Good vibes. … We didn’t let it affect us, but when you look back on it, the pressure was through the roof [last season]. Break a curse the way we did, the series we did it in. I don’t see it being any easier, but I think we’re built for it.”

All of this might be splitting hairs, but the Cubs find a distinction between pressure and attention. And they know that Cubs fans are everywhere.

“There’s always focus and attention here, man,” Maddon said. “Just walking across the street from the parking lot indicated that. That hasn’t changed.”

It’s that attention that has them focused on a second straight championship -- something 17 National League teams have failed to achieve since 1976.

Game 2 starter Jon Lester has three rings but is nowhere near satisfied. And he’s making sure his teammates aren’t either.

“If you lose that hunger to win it, you may as well go home,” Lester said bluntly. “If you don’t think you should win, then you probably shouldn’t be here.”

The Cubs grudgingly accept being underdogs against the Nationals, but they don’t really believe it. Or at the very least, they don’t believe it means anything -- at least not to them. If the pressure gets to the Nationals because they are the perceived favorite, then so be it. The Cubs will keep it loose knowing they have their championship.

“I think winning last year helps,” Lester said. “We’re not anxious. We’ve won, so you have that in your back pocket, so you’re not putting as much pressure on yourself to go out and perform.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Cubs can just roll out of bed and repeat as champions. They’ll have to earn it all over again, but everyone in their clubhouse and front office agrees the feeling this time around is different -- and not necessarily in a bad way.

“I think our guys are excited to go play in the postseason,” president Theo Epstein said. “No anxiety. No nervousness in a negative way. It’s just pure excitement. Once you’ve tasted success in the postseason, it makes you really eager to get back there and do it again. Our guys are raring to go.”

Epstein built such a deep team, his manager needed all week to devise an opening game lineup. Then again, the Nationals are deep as well, after midseason trades improved their bullpen. Perhaps it comes down to who is more desperate (that would be Washington) or who plays with less pressure on their backs (that would be Chicago).

Rookie Ian Happ is one of the few players who wasn’t around last season, but by the look on his face before Thursday’s workout, the playoffs aren’t that big of a deal. Of course, he hasn’t had an at-bat in them yet.

“It’s just a continuation of the way we’ve approached the entire year,” Happ said. “Everything has been preparation for [Friday]. ... I’m not anxious. I’m excited. It should be a blast.”

Second-year man Albert Almora Jr. added, “We do a good job of keeping to ourselves and saying, ‘Hey, it’s Game No. 163.’ Just some extra games added on. We’re not trying to blow it up. The routine stays the same.”

That was the prevailing sentiment at the team dinner on Wednesday, which was then repeated throughout the day Thursday afternoon. There’s bound to be some butterflies come game time, but not the type that come with a franchise that hasn’t won a championship in more than a century. Those demons were exorcised last fall.

“Experience is key,” Almora continued. “We’ve been here before. Just a different city.”

Right fielder Jason Heyward added, “It’s huge because that’s all you have is experience. When you need to lean back on something or rely on something, that goes a long way.”

Can the Cubs kick that door down again? The Nationals are good, but nothing the Cubs face will come close to last season’s challenge. And having met that one, perhaps the daunting task of repeating isn’t so far-fetched.

“That to me is harder than defending the World Series,” Lester said of last year’s playoff run. “Going forward, we have nothing to lose. We’re a really good team and should win the World Series again.”