CHICAGO -- They came, they saw, they mashed. The Chicago Cubs advanced to the National League Championship Series behind a powerful display in the batter's box against the best pitching staff in baseball.
The St. Louis Cardinals were the only team with an ERA under 3.00 in the regular season, but even with a shutout in Game 1 they were no match for the raw power of the Cubs. It all came together for the upstart team in a mid-October series which featured a mid-August climate.
"I mean, look at this weather in October with the wind blowing out," Anthony Rizzo said amidst the celebration on the field after a 6-4 victory. "It hasn't blown out all year here. If that doesn't have something to do with Ernie Banks smiling down on us, I don't know what does."
The former Cub great, who passed away earlier this year, would be smiling for a lot of reasons watching this team. Rookie after rookie, along with a few young veterans like Rizzo, stepped up to the plate and sent balls deep into the night against the Cardinals.
Meanwhile, right fielder Jorge Soler transformed into a mature hitter before our eyes, reaching base in 10 of 12 plate appearances while Starlin Castro went deep as did Dexter Fowler. And then there was rookie Kyle Schwarber -- "Bam Bam" as his hitting coach likes to call him -- who crushed two home runs in the series, including a towering shot which landed on the right field video board in Game 4 on Tuesday. It was his third long ball in his fourth postseason start.
"This is what you live to play baseball for is playing in front of your home crowd in the playoffs," Schwarber said afterward. "Then coming into the dugout, you know, our team is awesome. I can say it over and over again, the personalities that we have in the clubhouse are unbelievable, and it makes it so much fun to come to the ballpark every day."
To fully appreciate what the Cubs just did to the St. Louis pitching staff is to understand just how good the Cardinals were on the mound this year. They gave up the second fewest home runs overall this season including the third fewest on the road. In fact, the opposition homered just 63 times at home against the Cardinals. In two games at Wrigley Field the Cubs went deep nine times -- or 1/7 of the Cardinals season total on the road. That's insane.
"Is that right?" hitting coach John Mallee asked in wonderment. "The friendly confines were friendly to us finally. I've never seen this kind of young power."
Few have. Seven different players -- including the top six in the lineup in Game 3 -- went deep in the series, including Rizzo who crushed a Kevin Siegrist slider for a home run to break a 4-4 tie in the sixth on Tuesday. The day before he did the same thing off a Siegrist fastball.
"There's no cat-and-mouse game with these teams," Rizzo said. "We know what everyone has. We know what their pitchers have. They know what we have."
Rizzo must have been right about Banks looking down on the Cubs because for exactly 75 percent of their home games in the regular season the wind blew in at Wrigley Field. So far in the postseason it's blown out 100 percent of the time leading to two historic days and a series win.
"We like the long ball," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein laughed while getting sprayed with Champagne. "It's not just the raw power. What you saw speaks to our approach. That's something we stressed four years ago."
When Epstein took over in 2011 the Cubs couldn't get on base to save their lives. They "swung wildly" and had little command of the strike zone. Slowly but surely that changed. Home runs usually come on good pitches to hit, which only happen if batters are forcing the opposition into the strike zone. The Cubs young sluggers are doing just that.
"It's like turning around an ocean liner in the sea," Epstein stated. "It doesn't happen overnight. It happens a little at a time.
"A lot of things have gone right in the last 18 months. Most of all guts. Our young players adjusting to the big leagues way quicker than anyone could have imagined."
Before the power and understanding the strike zone comes the maturity to be able to do so. From the moment this group of young players arrived in spring training last February they showed themselves to be older and wiser than the age on their birth certificate would indicate.
"That's the thing that surprised me and I've been impressed with," veteran Jon Lester said. "How prepared these guys are every single day to go out and play and perform. And they do it day in and day out. That's the hardest thing to learn in this game to be ready to play every day."
There's not a moment in the season in which Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Schwarber and a healthy Soler didn't look like they belonged. They struggled, of course, but they never looked mentally beat up. Even Javier Baez returned to the majors with a different outlook and approach. After a year of adversity which included losing his sister, getting cut from the team and then missing time with an injury, he persevered. Baez got his chance when Addison Russell went down with an injury. All he did was hit a 3-run home run in his first postseason start.
"Our young players maturing like they did," Epstein said again smiling.
He had that same smile before Game 3 at Wrigley Field as the sun shined, the temperatures soared and the wind blew in the Cubs' favor -- which meant out. Jake Arrieta doesn't give up fly balls, Michael Wacha does. The home runs came in bunches and so did the 8-6 win. And it wasn't as close as that final score would indicate.
"The only thing that this team lacks is experience," Mallee said. "Talentwise they're as good as anyone."
Now they just might have enough experience to go all the way. Weather and wind patterns be damned, the Cubs are riding a wave of emotion right now and what was unthinkable back in spring training is now believable. They have a massive fan base behind them with an eclectic manager in charge of them.
"I was hoping for 90 [wins]," manager Joe Maddon laughed before the game. "When I was popping off at the Cubby Bear [when hired] I was thinking 90. So now plus-10. Now you're looking for more than that."
They got one more on Tuesday and aren't done yet. With two top of the rotation pitchers and a young but deep lineup, the Cubs aren't taking anything for granted. They might be a World Series contender in the coming years but they are right now as well.
"The only thing promised is a game in New York or L.A.. come Saturday," Epstein said.
So they're going to treat it like it's the last time they'll be there even though it's the first for many. Can they handle it? Ask the Pittsburgh Pirates and then the Cardinals. Ask the balls which went sailing into the night in their division series. Ask their own pitching coach who wouldn't want to be in the other dugout trying to figure these bashers out.
"They don't let the anxiety of the moment get to them," Chris Bosio said. "That's why we're where we are today."
A few home runs helped as well.