MILWAUKEE – The Cubs’ offseason of championship predictions and a spring of mirth and mimes inspired sarcasm among some rivals even before their 17 postgame celebrations the first month of the season.
One joke making the rounds in National League clubhouses last month went like this: “Did you go to Arizona for spring training? Were you there when the Cubs got their World Series rings?”
That’s the price of embracing a target that only gets bigger with every Jake Arrieta no-hitter, every series sweep against the Pirates or Nationals, and every mariachi band that plays “Tequila” in the clubhouse on Cinco de Mayo.
So far the Cubs are backing it up – series losses to the woeful Padres last week and mediocre Brewers this week notwithstanding.
Even after Thursday’s 5-3 loss to the Brewers at Miller Park, they have the best record in baseball. And they’re 11-2 against the top three teams they’ve faced this year as they head to San Francisco to add a fourth to that list – in a series that provides another litmus test, this one with a twist.
Virtual champs vs. actual champs.
The feel-good, would-be curse busters against the edgy, tested winners of the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series.
“You have respect for them because of what they’ve done in the past,” said Anthony Rizzo, whose Cubs leap-frogged the Giants into playoff position last August with a season-changing four-game sweep at Wrigley Field. “And what they’re trying to do this year is exactly what we’re trying to do.”
Anyone who doesn’t believe the Cubs are on the NL West-leading Giants’ radar this season didn’t see the look in Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner’s face when he explained to media what led to the verbal altercation with Cubs right-fielder Jason Heyward over perceived sign stealing – in a spring training game less than two months ago.
“They always play with a chip on their shoulder,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said. “Nothing wrong with that. They play everybody hard. They play to win, just like we do. It’s going to be a really good series.”
The Cubs will miss ex-teammate Jeff Samardzija, who pitched the Giants to their eighth consecutive victory Thursday night.
Bumgarner, the Giants’ ace, pitches Sunday’s series finale on national TV. And Jake Arrieta, the league’s ERA leader with more no-hitters (two) than losses (one) in his last 28 starts, opens the series for the Cubs Friday, against Jake Peavy.
The snarly Bumgarner was in the middle of a bench-clearing incident in his most recent start, this week against the Padres.
“We’ll be ready,” said Maddon, who admittedly began managing games like it was the playoffs during that sweep of the Giants. “I’m sure they’ll be ready for us also. Last year we got them at our place in August, so I’m sure they’ll be ready for us.”
Maddon downplayed the spring training sparks between Bumgarner and Heyward as “just a moment.”
But even that night, Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler said he expected the Giants to show up with the same intensity against the Cubs during the season, “especially with the type of hype we have.”
Beyond the hype-vs.-history element, the series also represents a study in contrasts between the Giants’ old-school organizational methods and the Cubs’ new-world blend of analytics, scouting, video, Pilates, yoga and Manny Ramirez.
Not to mention the contrasting styles of tobacco-spitting throwback manager Bruce Bochy and zoo animal-loving, hipster Maddon.
Giants insiders tell the story from this past spring of an exchange between Bochy and Maddon that started with the Giants manager sending a heads-up to Maddon about a starting pitching change for their game.
Maddon texted back, simply, “groovy” – prompting the bemused Bochy to show the text to everybody around him.
Who says “groovy”?
For what it’s worth, Maddon is the older of the two, by a little more than a year.
“I have a lot of respect for them. I like Boch a lot,” Maddon said. “Boch is outstanding. … They’re pros. They play the game right. It’s going to be fun.”