<
>

Cubs take celebration outside

Joe Maddon on clinching a playoff spot: "Getting to know the people here and our fan base, it's awesome." Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- Some might say it was very Cub-like to celebrate after a third consecutive loss, but maybe it’s more in line with a Joe Maddon-led team. The first year Chicago Cubs manager lives outside the box, so enjoying a postseason berth despite losing 4-0 to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday didn’t seem too outside the norm.

The Cubs clinched on Friday night but the champagne was popped late on Saturday afternoon.

"We owe this to the city," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said through sips of a bottle. "We’re going to enjoy this one. It’s been a long time coming."

Next year the Cubs' new clubhouse will be big enough to accommodate a party, but on Saturday the team spilled out onto the field after their game with the Pirates to celebrate their playoff bid. Champagne and beer to go along with a lot of hugs were in order. Some leftover fans witnessed a few mosh pits and a team picture on the mound. Losing streak be damned, they were going to have their moment.

"This is as good as it gets," Rizzo said. "Starlin (Castro) and I were talking how we have to enjoy this."

Castro and Rizzo might enjoy it the most even though it’s "only" been seven seasons since the Cubs made the postseason. The intervening rebuilding years were so tough to endure for the young veterans, it’s why the party needed to happen -- back-door clinch or not.

"Last night there was a lot of thinking back to 2011 and 2012 and how daunting a task it seemed," the architect of it all, Theo Epstein, said in between champagne showers. "The talent deficit early was intimidating."

But slowly Epstein and his front office acquired young talent which would make the run to the postseason this year. Hiring Joe Maddon was a surprise opportunity -- and they grabbed it.

"Getting to know the people here and our fan base, it’s awesome," Maddon said on the infield grass. "As a scout I could see the abilities here. To do it with this many young guys is unusual. It really is."

That statement might need to be repeated if things don’t go well next month, as the Cubs are ahead of any reasonable timetable for winning. Rookies usually need time. But not these guys. They did it now.

"This group is special," Kyle Schwarber said. "I can’t wait. A lot of intangibles went into this, too. I’m learning a lot. I couldn’t be more excited for what’s ahead."

What’s ahead is the postseason, and the Cubs need to get back to the business of winning after dropping their past three games, but not before a little fun. Cy Young award candidate Jake Arrieta hugged his pitching coach, Chris Bosio, not far from where he won his 20th game. Castro and Rizzo embraced while Maddon and owner Tom Ricketts had a private moment off to the side. Those fans who stayed probably believed this day would come, but plenty had their doubts. Rebuilding in a large market isn’t the norm.

"For the most part people have been remarkably supportive," Epstein said. "There’s always going to be doubters, there’s always going to be naysayers. There probably will be until we win the whole thing."

Can that happen this season? They’ll need to find some offense if they play the Pirates in the wild-card game, because Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano were lights out this weekend. But it was only a week ago the Cubs took three of four in Pittsburgh and have already won the season series while their ace, Arrieta, takes center stage on Sunday night in the regular-season series finale between the teams. Will he be ready after a night of partying? Will the Cubs? Maddon predicted playoffs in his opening news conference when he was hired in November. He predicted one more thing on Saturday while wiping champagne from his eyes.

"Our guys will be ready for the next week and beyond that," he said.

We're about to find out.