Let’s just tell it like it is: The Cubs never have recovered from the four-games-to-one beating the Dodgers gave them in the 2017 National League Championship Series.
That’s not to say the Cubs have crumbled completely. Quite the contrary. They won an impressive 95 games in a 2018 season that felt more up-and-down than that and seem to have gotten their act together this season after a bumbling start.
But they’ve yet to recover something vital to a team with World Series aspirations, and that’s top-dog status in their own league. As the two-time-defending NL champs — working on a streak of six NL West titles in a row — the Dodgers own that distinction.
The three-game series between the teams that begins Tuesday at Wrigley Field won’t do anything by itself to change the pecking order. But at least the Cubs (10-10) can get a feel for how they stack up against the Dodgers (15-9), who lead the NL in victories.
‘‘They’re good,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘They’re really well-balanced. They starting-pitch well. They relief-pitch well. They have the nice balance — yin and yang — on the field [with right- and left-handedness]. They can start different lineups vs. whatever, and they can pinch-hit with the game in progress. They’re nice. They’re
‘‘But I’m sure they’re saying the same things about us. We didn’t win [six consecutive] divisions, but we’ve kind of been step for step in the playoffs for four consecutive years. So I’m really pleased with that. We’re among the better teams and they’re among the better teams in baseball right now.’’
Count former Cubs broadcaster Bob Brenly as one who sees a distinction — however slight — between what arguably are the top two NL teams in terms of talent. The teams’ cores of position players are comparably strong. The starting rotations are similarly formidable, although the Cubs don’t have their own version of Clayton Kershaw (who won’t pitch in this series). But the Dodgers have added puzzle pieces with greater success than the Cubs have of late.
‘‘The Dodgers just seem to continue to add good players and continue to improve their play on the field,’’ said Brenly, now a broadcaster for the Diamondbacks, who lost two of three games over the weekend at Wrigley. ‘‘Everybody else is just playing catch-up right now.’’
For what it’s worth, Brenly considers the Cubs a decent bet to get back to the World Series before the window for this core closes. The key to it all? Two words: Anthony Rizzo.
‘‘There’s a certain air and a certain attitude about the Cubs since they won the World Series in 2016, and for me it all starts with the first baseman,’’ Brenly said. ‘‘Rizzo is a guy who carries a certain attitude: You’re either with us, or you’re the enemy. And I think the rest of his teammates have adopted that attitude, also.’’
After the Cubs tortured themselves and fans with unreliable offense in 2018, after their pitching troubles out of the gate this season and with Kris Bryant still searching for his old MVP magic at the plate, it’s fair to ask which way the arrow is pointing with this team. The Cubs’ NL Central rivals surely don’t look at them with the wide eyes they did in 2016 and ’17.
The Diamondbacks, at least, see their NL West tormentors as still getting better. The Dodgers won 104 games in 2017. After a 16-26 start in 2018, they put the pedal to the metal and edged the Rockies — in 163 games — to win the West yet again.
‘‘I think the Dodgers have the best players, but they’ve also created a winning culture over there that seems to be just getting stronger,’’ Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley said. ‘‘With what they’ve put together, with [manager] Dave Roberts, the players they’ve brought in, the arms, you know the Dodgers are a team we’re all going to have to play our best to beat — us in the division, the Cubs, the whole league.’’