Forget last year’s collapse and their slow start — the real Cubs are back

CINCINNATI — The season began with a tease. It wasn’t the way the Chicago Cubs drew it up after a dismal finish to 2018, as they opened 2019 in about the same manner. Actually, they lost games on the mound, whereas at the end of last season, those defeats came via their bats.

Either way, they were losing. Again.

It gave the baseball world reason to contemplate whether the four-time playoff-appearing Cubs were going in the wrong direction. After all, their manager is a lame duck, and the roster is essentially the same as the one that got bounced at home in a division tiebreaker and in the NL wild-card game — on consecutive days.

So when the Cubs began 2019 with a 2-7 record, many came to the conclusion that it was the beginning of the end of a nice run — one that ended a 108-year championship drought but left fans wanting more.

Then the turnaround began.

“I don’t think how we played on our first road trip was indicative of our talent level or our preparation,” team president Theo Epstein said Tuesday. “Our guys have done a really nice job of returning to the foundation when pushed, early, by that trip.”

GM Jed Hoyer added: “That road trip was probably a little bit of a galvanizing thing for the team.”

Boy, was it ever. After Tuesday’s 3-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds, the Cubs are a season-high 11 games over .500, sporting a 23-7 record since that opening road trip. The math says they lost seven of their first nine games, then seven of their next 30. That’s pretty incredible.

Tuesday’s winning pitcher was asked: What’s more surprising?

“I think the start was more surprising,” Kyle Hendricks said after pitching at least eight innings in his third consecutive outing. “This is the baseball we were expecting to play.”

After an offseason full of talk — talk of leadership in the clubhouse, talk of the team being cheap, talk of young players underachieving, talk, talk, talk — the Cubs are right back where they’ve been for most of the past four-plus years: at the top of the standings.

“The biggest thing is we have some players that struggled last year that are playing really well,” Hoyer said.

That list includes catcher Willson Contreras, now-healthy third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant and even pitcher Tyler Chatwood. The team didn’t give up on any of them — perhaps the Cubs had no choice, considering their budget constraints — and that faith is being rewarded.

“We’re right where we need to be, especially with the way it started out,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said.

Rizzo pushed back on the notion that the offseason rhetoric was overblown. Perhaps the Cubs did need a proverbial kick in the pants. They got it during some tough talk with their manager and front office. It’s the sign of the times, according to the Cubs All-Star.

“That’s what comes with our expectations,” Rizzo said. “It’s not like we’re the 2015 Cubs.”

Those were the days when securing a wild card and winning a bit in October felt great. Fast-forward four years, and getting into the wild-card game felt like a loss — just like the outcome of the game itself. Rizzo suggested that result might be good for the Padres this season — but not for Chicago.

“If they get to the playoffs, that’s really good for them,” Rizzo said. “But that’s not where we’re at. In a few years, if they continue to do that, that’s not going to be good for them. Where we’re at is a different level of expectations.”

With the monkey of last season still on their backs and a 2-7 record before they even saw Wrigley Field to start the season, the Cubs found a way to be great again. It came the way they’ve achieved greatness the past four years: through their starting staff. Cubs’ pitching was historically good in 2016, and it has been about the same since game No. 10 this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cubs’ rotation has a 2.32 ERA since April 8, tops in baseball. Sure, they’ve pitched at frigid Wrigley Field, but so have their opponents.

“We wanted to put it on us,” Hendricks said way back in early April.

The starters did just that. And perhaps the soul-searching the Cubs did after their dismal finish last season has made the difference, or maybe the final weeks of 2018 were just an anomaly. The Milwaukee Brewers were playing great, and the Cubs stubbed their toe for the first time since they became contenders. Their manager won’t allow himself to look back in a less than positive manner.

“It’s hard for me to talk negatively about 95 wins, and with the schedule that we had and the adversity that we faced,” Maddon said. “Sometimes you have to give the other guy credit. Milwaukee just did that well. They didn’t lose.”

But the Cubs did. Both team officials and players now believe it was the wake-up call they needed. The first nine games of this season simply served as a dramatic backdrop for their resurgence. It’s like they were saying, “Let’s have some people doubt us more, only to fool them.” It might have worked.

“Other people may not believe, but we never lost confidence in this clubhouse, and that’s the only thing that matters,” outfielder Albert Almora Jr. said.

The result is a 25-14 record and a return to the baseball elite. Did they ever leave? The Cubs don’t think so, but they’re also not planning any parades.

“I don’t want to take any victory laps now,” Epstein said. “The guys showed up really ready to play. There’s a real focus each day on doing what’s necessary to put our best foot forward in order to win.”

Of course, he’s right. We’re only about a quarter of the way through the season. But no one can take away what the Cubs have accomplished: reminding the baseball world how good they are. That happened quickly after a rough start, which came after a rough finish. Maybe they needed to experience it all to be where they are now.

“It was a painful road trip,” Hoyer said of the beginning of the season. “In some ways, that was probably good for us.”

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