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Can stronger Cubs back up owner’s boast in return to Washington?

WASHINGTON — The last time the Cubs were in this city, their season was nearing the halfway point, and bottoming out.

It didn’t stop them from taking another World Series victory lap with an unprecedented second White House trip to see a second president.

And it didn’t stop Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, who helped arrange the June 28 visit, from boasting about returning in October to face the Nationals in the playoffs.

“We’re going to run into these guys in the playoffs, and you’ll come down, and you’ll see them crumble,” Ricketts said to President Trump.

It's a different Cubs team that takes on the Nats this week than the one that stumbled into Washington in June, say Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

Said Trump: “Probably will.”

When asked about it the next day, Nationals manager Dusty Baker was dismissive.

“What are we going to crumble from?” the former Cubs manager said. “We’re not playing Todd.”

Fast forward more than three months, and the personalities, politics and sideshow possibilities that this National League Division Series represent could only get better if Trump and Ricketts show up for Game 1 on Friday night with rolls of paper towels to throw to the fans.

For now, it’s Baker vs. the team that kicked him to the curb before a $300 million spending spree after the 2006 season. It’s the Nationals vs. their own recent history of first-round playoff failures. It’s respective aces Max Scherzer and Jake Arrieta vs. their strained hamstrings.

And, perhaps more than anything else, it’s a different Cubs team — and a far different vibe — that occupies the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park than the one that started Eddie Butler in the opener in June and that looked like it might come apart at the seams by the time it left town.

Three Cubs who played in that series aren’t in the organization anymore, including catcher Miguel Montero, who was designated for assignment the day after criticizing Arrieta for contributing to seven Nationals stolen bases in a 6-1 loss to Scherzer.

“That series in some ways sort of summed up our first half,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It definitely wasn’t our best self by any stretch. We were a little banged up. We had some internal stuff going on. We were able to scramble to split the series, but it definitely wasn’t decisive; it wasn’t clean; it wasn’t pretty.”

Said first baseman Anthony Rizzo: “Somehow we managed to get two here, which we felt like was a series win. But it was June. This is October. And we have history here, with this group in October that’s good history, good feeling, good vibes.”

The Cubs traded for Jose Quintana, rested at the break and had the best record in the league in the second half. They were four games better in the second half than the Nationals, who did manage to give the Cubs one of their five series losses of the half.

The Cubs’ overall health and their starting pitching significantly improved after the break.

So did the Nationals’ bullpen and, by the end of the season, the renewed health of leadoff man Trea Turner and former MVP Bryce Harper.

The Cubs don’t enter this postseason with the galvanizing shared purpose of ending a curse or the pressure of it.

“I don’t care what anyone says, there was pressure last year,” Rizzo said. “We didn’t let it really affect us, but when you look back on it, the pressure was through the roof, to break a curse, to do it the way we did it, the teams we beat. I don’t see it being any easier this time around, but I think we’re built for it, and I think we’re ready for it.”

A lot more than they were the last time they were here.

“Looking at how we turned it around, I guess that says a lot about our team,” reigning MVP Kris Bryant said, “just the characters we have here. The character of the people we have here. We do have characters here, too.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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