Barely 45 minutes after the Cubs’ 5-4 loss to the Brewers on Thursday night, the Giants were heading into the late innings in San Francisco, leading the Cardinals in a game that would – about an hour later – clinch a division championship for the Cubs.
A game that made the Cubs the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season.
A game that gave the Cubs their earliest postseason clinch in franchise history, during their most dominant season in more than 80 years.
The Cubs’ response to standing on the brink of that first significant milestone moment of the year?
They went home.
With Friday’s pregame work schedule on several of the clubhouse video screens, and football on the others, a handful of players dressed and filtered out of a quiet clubhouse, no champagne in sight.
“We didn’t earn it,” said right fielder Jason Heyward, who doubled twice, drove in a run, scored another and represented the tying run at third when rookie Willson Contreras struck out to end the eighth.
“We celebrate after every win,” Heyward said. “When we lose, we don’t celebrate. Tomorrow’s another day.”
Anyone who wasn’t sure how dramatic the difference between this year’s run to the playoffs and last year’s surprising 97-win season and run to the National League Championship Series should be convinced after Thursday night.
With their magic number for clinching their first division title in eight years at one, and the chance to wait out the Cardinals’ 6-2 loss to the Giants for the go-ahead to party, they kept their minds on their own business and scattered for the night.
“Listen, I am as eager as everybody else is,” said manager Joe Maddon said, who expected the team to celebrate after Friday’s game . “Pragmatically, let’s do this, let’s move it along, and let’s get ready for the next step.
“This is just the first step. We have much larger baseball fish to fry in our skillet.”
After all, the season has been thick with the sense of this inevitability almost since Maddon began to “embrace the target” during the winter meetings, and at least since their 25-6 start – certainly since they opened their first 14-game lead over the Cardinals more than a month ago.
“This year’s really different from last year because of all the expectations we had coming in,” said team president Theo Epstein, whose club is in play for his first 100-win season in 14 years running front offices.
“Last year we were able to sneak up on people and go on this little joy ride the second half of the season into October,” Epstein said. “It felt like the only thing that matters was what was going on in the clubhouse. This year before we even reported to spring training there were all these expectations that kind of crept into the clubhouse, as you would expect. And the guys have handled it incredibly well, embracing the challenge and not backing down from any situation and preparing to get off to good starts in both the first and second halves, and executing on that.”
After a 6-15 slide into the All-Star break, the Cubs came out of the second half winning 20 of 26 – and 28 of 38 – and never looked back.
“And while being really businesslike in that approach, they’ve managed to have a ton of fun along the way,” he said. “It’s been really impressive to see.”
Players kept their eye on the prize and talked about bigger games ahead even as they planned their party.
“We’ve had a lead for such a long time and been able to do what we’ve done,” Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta said. “It’s kind of like, ‘job well done’ and move on to the next task.
“We’ve got 15 games or so left,” he said. “We’ve got to keep our guys healthy, make sure to get our guys reps and finishing on all cylinders for when the playoffs come.”
The Cubs still have to close out home-field advantage for the National League playoffs and hold their big lead over the Nationals. And they have two weeks to make sure they’re healthy and lined up for Game 1 on Oct. 7.
“It’s what we envisioned all year,” Arrieta said. “I’m just proud of all the guys in here for growing and learning at such a quick pace, especially the young guys.”
A year ago, the Cubs were in a similar position of waiting until the next day to celebrate after backing in the night before. That party was more intense than they expect this one to be.
“I don’t know how crazy we’ll get. We’ll enjoy it for sure,” Arrieta said. “But the next one, as they continue to come, will get bigger.”
That’s what Epstein was talking about when describing the difference this year, and the nature of this team and its purpose.
“It’s not navel-gazing time just yet,” Epstein said. “We’ve got a lot ahead of us. It boils down to October.
“We’re I think rightfully proud of the regular season that we’ve had and that’s meaningful, but it’s never time to look back after that. If you have a good enough regular season, then it’s time to play for what really matters. We’re on the doorstep of that.”