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Nightengale: These Cubs Curl Up in the Warm Embrace of World Series Expectations

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Photo by Stephen Green, vineline.mlblogs.com

It was dark and gloomy in Chicago, raining all day Wednesday, but it did nothing to dampen this sudden aura of invincibility in town.

The Chicago Cubs’ “Made for October” T-shirts moved briskly from Midway Airport to the Magnificent Mile. Business was booming everywhere, from Harry Caray’s to Murphy’s Bleachers. Forget the election — the Cubs were the top story on local TV.

The National League Championship Series doesn’t start until 8 p.m. ET Saturday at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs don’t know whether they’ll be playing the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers, but no one in this city seems to be bothered by such trivialities.

The Cubs are in the NLCS for the fifth time in their history, having reached baseball’s semifinals in consecutive seasons, but this time feels completely different than the others that preceded it, all ending in heartbreak.

The Cubs are convinced this is their best team ever to reach the NLCS, and, although they were swept out of last year’s postseason by the New York Mets, it wouldn’t surprise a soul if this year’s version runs the table the rest of the way.

“We’re a totally different team,” says David Ross, who became the oldest catcher to homer in a postseason game in Tuesday’s division series clincher against the San Francisco Giants. “Last year, that was new to everybody. There were always those questions, even in our own mind, since we haven’t ever done it before.

“This year, we have more confidence. We’ve gone through all of the experiences. We’ve gone through the expectations with the target on our back.

“These guys have learned to deal with all of that and embrace it and understand that if we just do the best we can, we’ll be better off in the end.”

It might be silly to declare “World Series or bust” for a team that hasn’t won the pennant since 1945 or the World Series since 1908, but that sentiment reverberates from every corner of the Cubs clubhouse.

“Yeah, and we love it,” manager Joe Maddon says. “I’m telling you, man, ‘expectations’ is a good word, because normally it means that you have something good attached to it at the other side.

“‘Pressure.’ ‘Expectations.’ I want our guys to thrive on those two words for years to come. I want the organization to. In the end, that means there’s a lot expected of you. Good, there should be. We should all have a lot expected of us. And then it should manifest itself in the sense that it should bring out the best in you.”

Cubs player Anthony Rizzo.  By Julie Fennell on Flickr https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50616199
Cubs player Anthony Rizzo. By Julie Fennell on Flickr https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50616199

This overwhelming sense of confidence, mixed in with a flair of braggadocio, has the Cubs mocking their past failures. If you don’t bring up the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Cubs will do it for you. If you don’t talk about Steve Bartman, the Cubs will leave him a ticket at will call. There’s no such thing as a jinx or curse, the Cubs will tell you.

Not with these guys, the most-talented young core of players in the game and threatening to create their own dynasty.

“We have some flashy guys, some guys who are MVPs and Cy Youngs and stuff like that,” says ace Jon Lester, who will start Game 1. “But when it comes down to it, we’re kind of like the 9-to-5 Chicago person that goes to work every day and grinds it out.

“Plus, I think we got too many young guys in there that don’t even know what that (curse) stuff is. You know what I mean?”

The only position players who were alive when the Cubs blew a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five 1984 NLCS against the San Diego Padres were catchers Miguel Montero and Ross and infielder-outfielder Ben Zobrist.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo, 27, the oldest Cubs everyday infielder, was 14 when Bartman snagged that foul pop-up away from left fielder Moises Alou in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins.

Why, the only returning everyday players from a year ago, when the Cubs were in the NLCS, are center fielder Dexter Fowler, third baseman-left fielder Kris Bryant and Rizzo.

Shortstop Addison Russell missed last year’s NLCS with a strained hamstring and was replaced by Javier Baez. Catcher Willson Contreras was blowing out his hamstring in the Arizona Fall League. Right fielder Jason Heyward was with the St. Louis Cardinals. Zobrist was winning a World Series with the Kansas City Royals. AndKyle Schwarber, last year’s starting left fielder in the NLCS, has been relegated to cheerleader because of season-ending knee surgery.

“It just feels completely different from a year ago,” said Cubs President Theo Epstein, who was 10 when that ball went between Leon Durham’s legs in the 1984 NLCS. “We have so many young players, but now we have postseason experience. That’s why we’re feeling so good after what we just went through.

“These guys know how to elevate their game. And any time you can survive what we just went through, against an October giant like that … It’s hard to finish any team in the postseason, let alone a team with that kind of character and pedigree.

“That says a lot about who we are.”

The Cubs were the first team since 2003 to eliminate the Giants in the postseason and the only team in history to come back from a three-run, ninth-inning deficit to win a clinching game.

Little wonder why the Cubs gathered on the mound late Tuesday night for a team picture, all wearing black “Respect” T-shirts and chanting, “We don’t quit! We don’t quit! We don’t quit!”

When asked the moment he thought the Cubs had a chance to pull off that miracle rally, taking one step closer to the World Series, Ross didn’t blink.

“Spring training,” he stated flatly.

The Cubs spent all season embracing the pressure, and now they’ve got another division series victory on their résumé.

“We’ve put ourselves in position to do something special,” Zobrist says.

History awaits.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale

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