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Cubs proud of season as repeat quest ends

Reigning champions reflect after 2017 campaign finishes with NLCS loss
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- During the National League Championship Series games at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon glanced at the center-field scoreboard. For the third straight year, the Cubs were one of the final four teams still playing.

"That's pretty darn impressive," Maddon said. "That speaks to the group, speaks to the organization itself. That's not lost on me, believe me. That's pretty special stuff. You could ask other groups in Major League Baseball who have not had that same situation and ask them what they think about it.

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CHICAGO -- During the National League Championship Series games at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon glanced at the center-field scoreboard. For the third straight year, the Cubs were one of the final four teams still playing.

"That's pretty darn impressive," Maddon said. "That speaks to the group, speaks to the organization itself. That's not lost on me, believe me. That's pretty special stuff. You could ask other groups in Major League Baseball who have not had that same situation and ask them what they think about it.

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"I hope everybody understands that, I hope our fans understand that," Maddon said. "We intend to stay on the same path for many years to come."

Video: NLCS Gm5: Maddon on effects from 2016 World Series

:: NLCS schedule and coverage ::

On Thursday night, the Cubs' season came to an end. The Dodgers romped, 11-1, to win the NLCS presented by Camping World and eliminate the possibility of the Cubs repeating as champions.

"As a team, we know it's an accomplishment to get to where we've gotten to," Ben Zobrist said. "But after what we experienced last year, this is less than what we wanted this year. At the same time, you have to recognize how tough a year it was for us. We kept battling and were able to win our division and win the Division Series to get here. I think the Dodgers were just better. They played a phenomenal series and we didn't. We have to keep our heads up. We kept battling together and stayed together."

In 2015, the Cubs reached the NLCS after winning the NL Wild Card Game, and last year, they posted the best record in the Major Leagues and capped the 2016 campaign by winning the franchise's first World Series since 1908. This year, the Cubs repeated as NL Central champs, although they had to come from behind to do so. Now, the season is over.

Maddon wasn't happy about the loss, but was proud of the journey.

"I could not be more pleased," Maddon said. "I think our guys learned a lot coming off last year -- how do you win, how do you play that deeply in the year and then compete and be good again the next year and get back to the promised land. It's not easy. I believe a lot of lessons were learned this year that we'll be able to carry with us.

"You think you learn some things from your past and you implement them and see if they actually do work," he said. "I thought I learned, the results appear as if I did learn something from a lot of failure."

Video: NLCS Gm5: Almora Jr. talks about NLCS loss to Dodgers

How hard is it to repeat? The Cubs are the first defending World Series champions to win their division and reach 90 wins the next season since the 2009 Phillies. They were trying to become the first World Series champs to repeat since the Yankees did so in 2000, the tail end of three titles for New York.

It seemed to take the entire first half of the 2017 regular season for the Cubs to get their footing. They trailed the Brewers by 5 1/2 games at the All-Star break. Willson Contreras provided the second-half spark, batting .311 from the All-Star break until he injured his hamstring in early August. The pitching improved, with Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta posting ERAs of 2.19 and 2.28, respectively, in the second half. Jose Quintana, acquired at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, went 7-3 with a 3.75 ERA, including a shutout against the Brewers on Sept. 24.

The offense found its groove, too. They batted .239 in the first half, and surged after the break with a .273 team average, second best to the Rockies.

The Cubs got a boost from rookie Ian Happ, who belted 24 home runs. Kyle Schwarber rebounded from being sent to the Minor Leagues and finished with 30 home runs and 59 RBIs. As a group, the Cubs totaled 223 homers, the second-highest season total in franchise history.

Video: NLCS Gm5: Zobrist on disappointing end to season

"There were a bunch of doubters out there, and a lot of people saying things that we knew weren't going to be true and we ended up proving a lot of people wrong," Chicago's Kris Bryant said. "That's a satisfying piece to take from the season."

Whether it was a World Series hangover or a sophomore jinx, or simply injuries to key players or difficulty finding guys to fill certain roles, the first half was a struggle.

"The first part prior to the All-Star break, I could sense it, you can smell it, you can feel it, it's true," Maddon said of the Cubs' slow start. "So what's that mean? It means that our guys are somewhat fatigued from the end of last season. When you watch them, it's not familiar because they're not playing with that same mental energy that you're normally used to seeing."

But they rebooted at the break.

"We were still behind Milwaukee significantly," Maddon said. "And then post-break, we catch some rest, and we play like we can. We start smelling it. You go to Milwaukee in September, and this really became familiar again, the method. How we go about our business, the adrenaline rush, the mental energy, the focus, all that stuff came back to us."

The Brewers swept the Cubs at Wrigley Field from Sept. 8-10, but Chicago then went on a 15-4 run to finish the season and repeat as NL Central champs.

Maddon -- and Cubs fans -- just had to be patient.

"I know everybody goes back to the first half of the season and likes to nitpick, but we won the division, made the playoffs," Jon Lester said. "Sometimes you're not always going to be in the World Series. The Dodgers are a really good team and they're playing really good baseball. This series showed it. You just move on. Your goal every Spring Training is to win the World Series. We put ourselves in a really good position to get to that point, and we weren't able to do it."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs