SAN DIEGO – As anyone who has followed or studied the Cubs for the last century or so knows, this team has an uncanny ability historically to miss its target.
No matter how many All-Stars (eight in 2008), no matter how many future Hall of Famers (five in 1969, counting the manager). No matter how late the Game 6 lead.
So as this dominating Cub season closes in on October, it’s certainly reasonable to beware of things that go bump in the ninth or to sweat 97-mph setup man Hector Rondon’s triceps injury.
But unlike some previous Cub playoff seasons, this one comes with at least a few guarantees.
No? Nothing’s guaranteed?
Obviously, any number of things can waylay the best-laid plans of any juggernaut.
But rest assured that this list of potential causes for concern are guaranteed to in no way keep the Cubs from reaching their goals this fall:
Jason Heyward’s presence in the lineup: The free agent jewel of the Cubs’ offseason has been a first-year bust at the plate since signing that $184 million deal. But that hasn’t prevented the Cubs from producing the best record in the majors this year with the second-highest run total in the National League, scoring more than five runs per game. But the significant point is Heyward’s already one of the best defensive outfielders in franchise history, transforming the look of a position area that was a weakness last year and helping the Cubs become the best team in baseball by a large margin in turning balls in play into outs. That’s an especially precious commodity in the postseason.
Tommy La Stella’s absence: With all due respect to the backup infielder’s heady confidence in his abilities and his improved skills as a fielder at second and third, the Cubs can win – and have won – without him. He is a bench player with a good eye, exceptional contact-hitting skills, friendly banter and little else. When he refused for weeks to report to the minors after being optioned during a roster numbers crunch, the sideshow overshadowed his contributions. The Cubs actually have a better winning percentage (.667) without him than with him (.588), and in fact have a losing record in the last 31 he’s played (15-16).
The Mets: The team that swept the Cubs out of the playoffs last year? The team that was in the Cubs’ heads when they went into New York to play them at midseason? That team doesn’t exist anymore. The Mets are an injury-plagued, .500 team with trouble scoring runs, and their vaunted pitching staff is springing leaks – left-hander Steven Matz going on the DL Monday with a shoulder injury. Last year’s Game 1 playoff starter against the Cubs, Matt Harvey, already is out of the season with a nerve-related injury.
John Lackey’s shoulder: The big-game veteran who was signed last winter in large part because of his World Series pedigree and age-defying production last season plans to be at full strength when the playoffs start. But he would not suggest even a vague timeline – much less optimism – when he went on the DL Friday. Could they use him in the playoffs? Of course. Will they be in dire straits without him? No. That has more to do with the breakout of Kyle Hendricks as an elite performer this season (MLB-leading 2.16 ERA) and the ability of Jason Hammel to sustain his first-half success into the second half for the first time in three seasons. They’re big reasons the Cubs have by far the top-performing rotation in the majors this year – and figure to stack up three or four deep with a playoff opponent even with Lackey sidelined.
Fatigue: It derailed the 1969 team in September as manager Leo Durocher rode his regulars into the ground trying unsuccessfully to stave off the Mets. This time around, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has spelled his regulars since early in the season, to the point of irritating some of them, including using spot starters to provide extra rest for the rotation. The huge division lead allows him to continue to rest guys liberally through the rest of August, and then rosters expand for the final month. If last year’s rookies – Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, et al – weren’t fatigued last year when they played more than five months in a season for the first time, the young legs shouldn’t wobble in October this time around.
Trust us. Save the hand-wringing when it comes to any or all of these five. Nothing can go wrong because of these issues.
Now, if you’re going to start talking about all those other things that go bump in the ninth – not to mention the Giants and Nationals – no guarantees.