CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs long-awaited reign as world champions started when a baseball thrown by Kris Bryant in Cleveland popped into the wet glove of Anthony Rizzo, setting off a celebration 108 years in the making.
It ended, for all intents and purposes, 351 days later in Chicago, when a baseball hit by Kiké Hernandez found the basket at Wrigley Field for a grand slam and a seven-run Dodgers lead in just the third inning.
Six innings of formality later and one more Hernandez homer later, that was that. The Dodgers became the third team in as many years to celebrate the clinching of a National League pennant at the Friendly Confines, walking away with a 11-1 victory to win the NLCS in five games.
The Cubs, on the business end of the champagne bottle last fall, saw the expiration of a year in which “world champion Chicago Cubs” was a real thing and not just the product of a daydream or the end sequence of a video game.
So what to make of a season that was unlike any of the hundred and change before it?
Cubs manager Joe Maddon deemed the title defense “trying,” a descriptor that anyone who watched the day to day of this team could easily endorse.
After all of the hoopla of banner-raising and ring-awarding, the reality of maintaining the type of focus and effort it’d take to become the first repeat winner since the 2000 Yankees quickly set in.
So, too, did the challenge of fulfilling expectations.
The Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment didn’t work. Miguel Montero, who hit a dramatic grand slam of his own in last year’s NLCS, was summarily cut after criticizing Jake Arrieta. Consistent efforts out of the bullpen from anyone not named Wade Davis were hard to come by.
By the All-Star break, the Cubs trailed the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central by 5.5 games and Maddon was managing the National League All-Star team without a single member from the 2016 postseason roster (Davis, acquired in an offseason trade, was the team’s lone representative in Miami).
If fans on the North Side in Chicago weren’t in an all-out panic by mid-July, they were certainly raising plenty of eyebrows and looking for affirmation from other fans.
The first day of the second half brought notice that the Cubs weren’t going to let this season — or the seasons after it — go to waste. Theo Epstein and Co. pulled off a crosstown trade for White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana, a rotation reinforcement the Brewers had coveted and who certainly didn’t come cheap. In exchange for Quintana and his four cost-controlled years, the Cubs had to surrender top prospect Eloy Jimenez, whose big bat should be a centerpiece on the South Side for years.
Still, it was a signal the Cubs weren’t going to waste their shot.
And they didn’t. The Cubs won eight of their first nine out of the break, catching up with the stumbling Brewers by July 23. Though they’d be tied for first place on a few occasions, they never again gave up the top spot in the division and became the first World Series champion to win their division the following year since Philadelphia in 2009.
Like the Phillies, the Cubs also won a postseason series, beating the Washington Nationals in a five-game series that also took its fair share out of the team.
Unlike those Phillies, the Cubs couldn’t get back to the World Series. The Cubs never looked right against the Dodgers. All eight of their runs in the series came via the home run, the heart of the order struggled and the pitching staff just couldn’t match the level the Dodgers staff was performing at.
The last time the Cubs were dethroned as champions, the calendar read October 16, 1909. Honus Wagner and the Pittsburgh Pirates had just defeated Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers. Though Chicago baseball fans didn’t know it at the time, it’d be the first of 39,099 long days trying to find their way back atop the mountain.
How long will it take the Cubs to get back to the World Series and win it? As everyone knows, there are no guarantees in baseball, particularly in an era that welcomes 10 squads into the postseason battle. The Cubs of the 1910s got back to the World Series twice, but fell to the American League opponent each time.
But Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Co. have gotten the franchise where they hoped it would be when they came aboard in 2011. With regular forays into October and an old ballpark turned into a cash cow, Epstein’s crew has to be feeling a strong sense of deja vu when compared to their Boston days.
This was the team’s third straight appearance in the NLCS, a far cry from the occasional playoff season the franchise used to put together.
“I hope that’s something that nobody ever takes for granted here or anywhere else,” Maddon said earlier in the week.
Things will look different when the team convenes in Mesa next spring. Jake Arrieta will be a very rich man, though probably with someone else. John Lackey has probably reached the end of the road. The team has to make other decisions with a bullpen that needs more reliable options and a homer-reliant lineup that faltered big time in two of those three NLCS when pitted against a deep pitching staff.
“There’s always last year,” many Cubs fans repeated with a laugh the past few days.
But there’s always next year, too. And would anybody be surprised if we see Dodgers vs. Cubs for a third straight year in the NLCS?
Both teams should certainly be up for it.