CINCINNATI — If you ask Anthony Rizzo what stands out to him during an All-Star season that could include a Gold Glove, maybe even an MVP award, along with 103 victories, you get a blank stare.
“I don’t know,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m not there yet. I’m focused on the next month.”
Maybe that stare isn’t so much blank as a fixed gaze on the horizon.
Seven months and 13 days after they began to “Embrace the Target” in spring training, the Cubs closed out their best regular season in more than a century Sunday, but they have their focus on that other century-plus gap in the franchise.
Along the route to the best record in the majors and the favorite’s role heading into the postseason, they overcame the season-ending knee injury of last year’s slugging young playoff hero (Kyle Schwarber) the first week of the season, Twitter attacks on ownership by presidential nominee/loose cannon Donald Trump, a three-week skid into the All-Star break when their pitching slumped en masse, an AWOL bench player in August and even a few days of clubhouse friction down the stretch from stir-crazy players grousing over the manager’s “spring training” methods for playoff prep.
For all those moments, the season otherwise went according to script and, if anything, exceeded expectations for health and consistent performance.
When they fought to earn a wild-card berth last year, the Cubs could point at a four-game sweep of playoff-hopeful San Francisco in early August as the defining moment of that season.
“This year, it’s more of an amalgam of work,” said manager Joe Maddon, who added the Cubs’ 22-6 August might have been his chosen moment of the season.
Whatever it is, the Cubs arrive at their Friday playoff date healthy and with the best starting rotation in baseball (including Cy Young candidates Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks), the best group of fielders in the majors in run prevention and the best middle of the order featuring MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Rizzo.
“Of course, anything can happen in the playoffs, especially a short series,” said one longtime scout following the playoff teams. “But they’re the best team in the field.”
And they know — maybe even more than last year at this time — how good they are.
“Just look around the clubhouse and the character of the people and the players that we have,” Jake Arrieta said after the Cubs’ win Sunday gave them 200 wins over two seasons. “If we hold each other accountable, those are the kind of regular seasons we can have as a unit if we stay healthy.
“Yeah, 200 wins in two seasons is no easy feat, but after w win a ring, we’d like to make it three seasons [averaging] 100.’”
How the 2016 Cubs went from being the most targeted team in the National League on the first day of spring training to the 103-victory juggernaut that enters the
playoffs Friday as the World Series favorite:
Feb. 25, Mesa, Arizona — Mere hours after multiple reports from Baltimore said Dexter Fowler had signed a three-year contract with the Orioles, Fowler shocked Cubs players by showing up during morning workouts, having signed a one-year deal with the Cubs.
And: Fowler became manager Joe Maddon’s catalyst from the leadoff spot, earning his first All-Star selection and setting a career high in on-base percentage (.393).
March 22, Mesa, Arizona — Maddon’s embrace-the-target spring, filled with pre-work karaoke sideshows, DJs and zoo animals, jumped the shark for antics when a mime quietly showed up to perform one morning.
And: Enough said.
April 7, Phoenix — Fowler and Kyle Schwarber collided in the outfield, resulting in Schwarber being carted off the field with knee and ankle injuries.
And: The 2015 playoff hero required season-ending knee surgery. Schwarber has remained part of the team while doing his rehab work in Chicago, and the Cubs went on to their best record since 1910.
April 21, Cincinnati — Jake Arrieta pitched his second no-hitter in a span of 11 regular-season starts, improving to 15-0 with a 0.53 ERA in his last 16 starts as the legend of his pitching prowess took on Bunyan-esque proportion.
And: Command issues from that start carried over as the 2015 NL Cy Young winner struggled to be consistent. He lasted less than six innings in 11 of his last 27 starts and went 2-3 with a
5.30 ERA in his last six.
May 8, Wrigley Field — The Cubs walked Bryce Harper six times, came back from a 3-1 deficit and beat the Nationals in 13 innings on a walk-off home run by Javy Baez.
And: The victory gave the Cubs a four-game sweep of a team they might face in the National League Championship Series and was the penultimate game in their historic 25-6 start.
June 27, Cincinnati — Kris Bryant became the first player in major-league history to hit three homers and two doubles in a game, driving in six runs in an 11-8 victory.
And: The Cubs were in a 1-6 stretch before the outburst, which launched an MVP campaign for the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year.
June 28, Cincinnati — In the bottom of the 14th inning of a game that would go 15, right-hander Spencer Patton and left-hander Travis Wood switched between left field and the mound for each batter of a 1-2-3 inning. Right-hander Pedro Strop finished the game in left.
And: It was the first time since 1904 that more than one Cubs pitcher played a different position in the field in a season, much less in a game. Maddon answered media questions about it for nearly two weeks as the Cubs struggled into the All-Star break.
July 3, New York — Jon Lester gave up a run in the first inning and seven more in the second in his worst start of the season as the Cubs were swept in an ugly, emotionally tinged rematch of their 2015 playoff elimination.
And: Lester didn’t lose again until Saturday. He finished the season 10-1 with a 1.76 ERA in his last 12 starts, earning a Game 1 playoff start. Along the way, he beat the Mets 5-1 at home, where he might face them again Friday.
July 10, Pittsburgh — After the Pirates tied the score in the seventh inning, Bryant’s two-out single drove home the game-winner in the eighth of a 6-5 victory that snapped a five-game losing streak in the last game before the All-Star break. The Cubs had lost 15 of 20 before that game as the Giants overtook them for best record in the majors.
And: The Cubs regrouped and won 20 of their first 26 games after the break.
July 24, Chicago — The Cubs gave up top prospect Gleyber Torres in a trade with the Yankees to acquire 105 mph closer Aroldis Chapman, whose domestic-violence past sparked instant criticism against an organization that goes out of its way to boast of its character.
And: After a news conference — botched by all Cubs-related parties — that caused friction between Chapman and the media, the left-hander converted 16 of 18 save chances with a 1.01 ERA and remains a key figure in the Cubs’ World Series plans.
July 29, Chicago — After Tommy La Stella — who was hitting .295 at the time — was optioned to Class AAA Iowa because of a numbers crunch on the roster, he refused to report, going
AWOL as teammates reached out and the team psychologist worked with him over the phone.
And: A front office obsessed with details in its postseason-roster planning stuck out a drama that 29 other teams would have resolved by getting rid of him. More than two weeks later, La Stella relented. He returned to the majors Aug. 31 and went just 9-for-44 (.205) the rest of the way.
July 31, Wrigley Field — After spot starter Brian Matusz put them in a 6-0 hole, the Cubs came back to beat the Mariners 7-6 in 12 innings, with Lester coming off the bench to drive home the game-winner with a squeeze bunt. Wood made a run-saving catch in left field in the seventh.
And: The comeback was the start of a season-high 11-game winning streak that pushed the Cubs’ division lead to 14 games on Aug. 12.
Aug. 1, Wrigley Field — In his signature game of the season, Kyle Hendricks saved the beat-up bullpen with a seven-hit shutout of the Marlins.
And: Hendricks’ 10th victory was part of a 22-start streak (until Sunday) in which he allowed three runs or fewer, forced his name into the NL Cy Young conversation and wrapped up the Cubs’ first ERA title (2.13) since Ray Prim in 1945.
Aug. 16, Wrigley Field — For the second time in as many seasons, Anthony Rizzo used the rolled-up tarp along the first-base line as a prop to make a great catch by reaching into the stands. This time, he tiptoed along the concrete wall to make the catch, then jumped back onto the field in a graceful dismount.
And: Underscoring the kind of fielding that has the Cubs leading the majors by a wide margin in turning batted balls into outs, the play launched yet another team T-shirt. This one depicted an illustration of the play with the Olympics logo and ‘‘Tokyo 2020’’ underneath.
Aug. 26, Los Angeles — Bryant homered in the eighth and 10th innings to chants of ‘‘M-V-P!’’ “M-V-P!” from a surprisingly partisan Cubs crowd at Dodger Stadium.
And: Bryant finished the season with a .292 batting average, 39 home runs, 102 RBI, 121 runs scored, a .939 OPS and the front-runner position in the NL MVP race.
Sept. 16, Wrigley Field — The Cubs already had clinched the NL Central when the Cardinals lost a late game the night before, but they mounted a ninth-inning rally to tie the score before Miguel Montero’s homer in the 10th beat the Brewers 5-4 to start the champagne party.
And: The Cubs went on to become the franchise’s first 100-victory team since 1935.
Sept. 28, Pittsburgh — Arrieta and Montero sounded off after a loss to the Pirates about the ‘‘spring training’’ methods of managing games after the Cubs had clinched a playoff spot with
16 games remaining, echoing sentiments expressed privately by players in recent days.
And: Maddon fired back the next day: ‘‘There’s really not a whole lot of credence to all of that, as far as I’m concerned, because we’ve been playing well.’’ As much as anything, the bent feelings appeared to be a function of the awkward position the 103-victory Cubs achieved with two weeks left. Whether any of it matters should be become apparent by the end of the weekend.