CHICAGO -- When Cubs manager Joe Maddon got hot last Friday, railing on the plunk-for-a-plunk Cardinals Way after a win, his boss loved it.
“That was a cooled-down Joe,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Monday afternoon. “He was even hotter when he was in his office before he went to meet you guys.”
There have been too many turning points and too many statement moments to count during the Cubs’ feel-good, comeback season, but Maddon’s “we don’t start stuff, but we will end stuff” rant after an 8-3 win over St. Louis certainly should be on the Cubs Convention sizzle reel in January.
Yes, the ol’ Cubs swagger is back. Was swag even a word the most recent time the Cubs had it?
The Can't Lose Cubs are now 88-62, and with a late September chill in the air and a packed ballpark, it's beginning to feel like 2003, 2007 and 2008 -- good years that ended badly.
A 9-5 win over the Brewers on Monday night was highlighted by 3-4-5 hitters Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro going 8-for-10 with six runs and three doubles (two by Castro). Pinch hitter Jorge Soler also delivered with a three-run home run. The buzz of the Cardinals series did not wear off with the Brewers in town.
Unlike 2008, when it was World Series or bust, given the uncertain nature of a one-game, wild-card playoff, it’s hard to think about how far this team can go in the postseason. It’s easy for fans to just be happy being included in meaningful October baseball.
But the players and coaching staff are thinking bigger. They can smell opportunity. They feel invincible. If only they had a little more starting pitching, I’d agree with them.
Certainly, if Epstein had known how hot this team would be in August and September, he probably would have traded prospects to get more starting pitching than Dan Haren at the non-waiver trade deadline. He wasn’t just waxing poetic about winning baseball being sacred back in 2011.
Yes, even Epstein, who prophesied “The Plan,” is more than a little surprised by how much better this team has gotten over the course of the season. The Cubs are 33-15 since July 31.
"This version of the 2015 Chicago Cubs is pretty darn good," Epstein said Monday.
It’s hard to remember when the Cubs were only eight games over .500 and a game back of San Francisco for the second wild card after July. Now they’re 26 games over .500 and 9½ games ahead of the Giants and just two back of the Pirates for a home wild-card game. The Pirates come to town this weekend for the last full home series of the season and what should be a heated series.
On Sept. 1, Epstein talked about September momentum to reporters in the news-conference room.
“I think there is a momentum at play in September that’s powerful,” he said. “That’s more powerful than playoff odds and math and things like that that people like to look at this time of year. I think being loose and having a positive vibe, even if you lose a few games in a row, is really important to keep the momentum going the right way.”
The Cubs are 14-6 in September and 7-3 against the Cardinals and Pirates. Theo was right again!
“Watching this team play and the way they’re playing the game, the brand of baseball that they’re playing, how they feel about themselves, you see the confidence they’re playing with,” Epstein said Monday. “It makes you feel good because it represents the growth, not only as an organization as a whole over the last three or four years, but even within the course of the season.”
Epstein earned his stripes in the hardcore AL East, so he can appreciate how important it was for the Cubs to take four of six from the Cardinals this month. Both of the Cardinals' wins came in the last game of the series, both by a 4-3 score.
“Yeah, anytime you can go up against the team with the best record in baseball, go into their place and take two out of three there and two out of three at your place, that’s a big confidence-booster,” he said. “Look at what it takes to beat us right now. St. Louis won that game [Sunday], and they deserved to and played a good game, but you’ve got to show up [and] do a lot of things right to beat us the way we’re playing right now.”
For Epstein, a veteran of the Red Sox-Yankees wars, it was a reminder that great baseball teams have bitter rivalries that bleed into the game. Throw in the Pirates, who come to Wrigley this weekend still grieving the loss of rookie infielder Jung Ho Kang, who is lost for the season after a Chris Coghlan slide broke his leg and tore his MCL, and the Cubs are suddenly a hated team in the NL Central rather than the dorky little brother with the messy hair.
“It reminded me a little of 2003, when we [the Red Sox] were starting to get the Yankees’ attention,” Epstein said.
Epstein was still the Boy Wonder, not yet 30, back in 2003. With the benefit of wisdom, he knows how hard it is for a team to break through walls and win it all. The heartbreak of losing the 2003 American League Championship Series to the Yankees led to the joy of the Red Sox's 2004 World Series win.
If the Cubs get knocked out in the wild-card game or divisional series against the hated Cardinals, will the Cubs owners have that visceral reaction to losing to a rival that turns into blank checks for Epstein to solidify the rotation? Maybe. It’s something to think about down the road.
Epstein won’t discuss the postseason yet, even with the Cubs' 99 percent chance of making it. He claims he hasn’t started thinking about the postseason roster.
“Maybe in the back of your mind you start to develop a feel for what some of the decisions might be,” he said. “But as far as having a real meeting, sitting down and planning it out, you have to get there first. This game will humble you in a hurry if you get too far ahead of yourself. We have some real work to do before we get in. We need to go and win some ballgames and finish strong.”
The Cubs have 12 games left. Their playoff fate remains uncertain. At this time of the year, if you're Epstein, you want to be able to dream and imagine wild scenarios that end in beer baths.
After the past three years, when all the Cubs had was the future, Epstein is fine with waiting a little longer to get back to the postseason. For now, enjoying the present is enough.
He deserves that. All the Cubs fans do, too.