Future brighter than ever for North Siders
Young nucleus fuels Cubs' hopes after 2015 NLCS exit
CHICAGO -- Traditions always die hard, don't they?
To be sure, the Cubs are still honoring one of their oldest ones. A few minutes after the final out at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night, the grounds crew raised a flag from the center-field mast, and it was saddest of sights for loyal, lifelong fans.
The blue 'L' blew gently in the soft breeze on a lovely autumn night, and so ended, for now, dreams of watching Jake Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler in the World Series. But as painful as it was for them to watch the Mets celebrate an 8-3 victory and a National League Championship Series sweep before the ivy-covered walls, many of the 42,227 sitting in seats and standing on ramps stuck around to cheer both teams.
They were on their feet with two outs in the ninth, chanting "Let's go, Cubbies'' as first Miguel Montero and then Dexter Fowler batted. They kept chanting even after Fowler took a called third strike from Jeurys Familia, which left him jawing at umpire Paul Emmel as Mets players charged out of the dugout to mob Familia.
About 10 minutes after the final out, Cubs reliever Trevor Cahill sheepishly led manager Joe Maddon and his teammates back onto the field. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, who had been standing near the dugout, started to applaud and fans clapped and cheered.
Ricketts, who had spent most of the game walking around the ballpark and visiting with fans, clapped so long his hands will be sore on Thursday. You can bet he won't mind a bit.
General manager Jed Hoyer, standing in front of the dugout, took a full bag of baseballs, the ones used for batting practice, and tossed them to fans behind the Cubs' dugout. When Maddon emerged from the dugout to walk across to the interview room, he was applauded by both sets of fans. This wasn't exactly the treatment Leo Durocher got at Shea Stadium in 1969.
It's safe to say, never has losing felt this good for the North Siders.
"We're not only a playoff team but a team that can compete in the playoffs,'' Ricketts said. "But overall what you saw were a lot of good, young guys get better, and you see a team that's building a nucleus for success.''
A team strong enough to buck not only its own history but that of teams that get eliminated in Championship Series sweeps.
The Cubs are the eighth team to get swept in the NLCS or ALCS since 1985, when the format was expanded to best-of-seven, and none of the previous seven went back to the postseason the following year or won the World Series within the next decade.
But please don't hang anyone else's baggage on these Cubs. They just ran into the wrong pitching staff at the wrong time. There's not a lot else to be read into what happened over these last five days.
Unlike those six previous teams to be swept -- the '14 Orioles, '07 Diamondbacks, '06 A's, 1995 Reds, '90 Red Sox and '88 Red Sox -- the Cubs are very clearly on their way up, not at their height with down the only direction to go.
Rebuilt meticulously by Theo Epstein & Co. and managed lovingly by Maddon, the Cubs shouldn't have to wait long until they're on the other side of an NLCS celebration.
These guys know what they're doing, and the pipeline of 21-and-under talent is flowing via both the Draft and international signings. The controlled cost of a lineup that included four rookies until Addison Russell strained a hamstring in the NL Division Series leaves Epstein and staff with financial flexibility to add the arms needed behind Arrieta and Jon Lester.
While Epstein will work to trade for a young stud, rival teams expect the Cubs to be in play for the top free-agent starters -- David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann -- while they let the young arms in their system, prospects like Carl Edwards Jr., Pierce Johnson, Jen-Ho Tseng and Dylan Cease, climb the ranks before they begin to arrive en masse, most likely in 2017 and '18.
We're sure to be talking about moves to help the Cubs find the pitching depth they were lacking down the stretch this season, when Maddon was masterfully handling a patchwork bullpen loaded with recent acquisitions. But those will be fine-tuning moves compared to what the Cubs accomplished this year, with Arrieta emerging as a Cy Young Award candidate and another impact rookie seemingly joining the team every month.
Maddon congratulated his players before meeting with the media after the loss.
"For me personally, I walked in the door not really knowing anybody in Arizona, when we got there in February, and how we built relationships and created a culture within one year is pretty spectacular,'' Maddon said. "I mentioned to them how important it is as we move forward and we go to Spring Training next year, we know exactly what we want to do and how we want to do it. … Our young players have learned how to win on a Major League level, which matters. And to get within four games of the World Series in your freshman year is not a bad thing.''
But there will be some disappointment. After beating the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game and the Cardinals in the NLDS, Ricketts believed his team could run the table.
It didn't get another victory, with the Mets leading in 33 of 36 innings in the NLCS as epic hitting from series MVP Daniel Murphy (9-for-17 with four home runs, six RBIs and six runs scored) backed starters Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz, who combined to allow six runs and 15 hits in 25 innings.
"They smothered us early, and that's always a great game plan,'' Maddon said. "They were able to do that, and they kind of dictated the action based on that. … I've not seen anything like [how hot Murphy is], I don't think, ever. I saw [Barry] Bonds in the 2002 World Series, where you did not want to throw a baseball to him. Right now [Murphy's] just incredible -- line drive to left, homer to right or homer to center. He looks like he's going to hit the ball hard on every pitch.''
Epstein has said his regime feels an obligation to reward Cub fans for their patience -- in general for the 107 years without a championship, and in particular for suffering through losing seasons in 2012-14 as the organization accumulated young talent.
That's a common conversation between Ricketts and fans, too.
"They trusted us,'' Ricketts said. "We had some lean years, some teams that weren't that competitive, but it was always with a purpose. Our fans hung with us up till now, [and] we were able to pay them back with a really special, magical season. Now we have to pay them back with a World Series.''
They're on their way.