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MORRISSEY: A good start might make all the difference for the Cubs this season

I waited until May 8, 2017, to remind the Cubs that the 2016 season was over and that the merrymaking should stop once and for all. I thought waiting five weeks into the season showed a lot of restraint on my part.

The defending World Series champions were 16-15 at that point, having just been swept in three games by the Yankees at Wrigley Field. In a column, I called it “a reminder that this season isn’t going to be one of those high-end boat cruises along the Danube. There are good teams out there, and they don’t care that the Cubs are the defending champions. Or if they do care, it’s only because the Cubs are in the way of what they want. It’s time to stop celebrating.’’

Oh, the abuse. Who did I think I was? The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since the Pleistocene Epoch and here was this knucklehead telling the team and the fans to get serious? Readers and radio talk-show chuckleheads let me have it. It was only May!

The bigger point was that the Cubs needed to get down to business and that games in the first two months of the season count just as much as they do in August and September. If everyone really was serious about sustained success and championship windows, locking in on the present might be a good idea, I said.

The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo reacts after striking out in the sixth inning against the Yankees on May 5, 2017. New York would sweep the Cubs in a three-game series. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

So it was interesting to hear team president Theo Epstein talking the other day about the need for the Cubs to get off to a good start in 2018. My ears perked up. A fast start is important?

“If you don’t take care of business in the first half, you have to put the foot on the accelerator hard the whole second half,’’ Epstein said Friday at the Cubs Convention. “That can leave you a little bit worn out as you enter the most important time of the year, which is October.

“It gets lost in the shuffle, but (last season) we played great, postseason-type baseball in mid-September to win the division. We played some great games against the Cardinals and the Brewers, but then by the time we got to October, we weren’t able to consistently replicate that. Whereas the year before, we had a chance to rest guys, get everything lined up in order and that helped us out in October.

“I think there will be no need to explain the importance of a good start and a good first half this year.’’

But just in case, he was mentioning it to the media. And if the message should happen to find its way to the players, Epstein probably wouldn’t be opposed. A fast start is important. We laymen, the ones who thought mediocrity in April and May might catch up to the Cubs last season, apparently weren’t crazy after all.

The slow start in 2017 — and a 40-41 record at the halfway point of the season — had an adverse effect. Pitchers couldn’t be rested as the season wore on. The staff turned into a tired mess as the playoffs went along, and manager Joe Maddon’s love of bringing different arms to different innings blew up in his face.

The Cubs do indeed have a window in which to win another World Series or two. It is doable. But lots of things have to go right, including the start to the season.

More importantly, the Cubs have to cut down on the things that can go wrong. That’s why it’s crucial that they add another starting pitcher to their roster. Not doing so would add to the possibility of things going sideways this season.

“There’s legitimate risk with injury or underperformance to our pitching staff that we’re going to be scrambling midseason,’’ Epstein said. “You don’t want to be scrambling. We need to continue to add quality and depth and try to mitigate as many of the risks as we can. You never eliminate all the risks, otherwise you’d win it all every year.’’

It’s funny how far many of us have come in a matter of five years or six years: from being braced for the kind of futility that had defined the franchise for more than a century to thinking that the Cubs have a chance of winning it all every year. We’ve come so far that we can say this without blushing: Maybe the Cubs would have won the World Series last season if they had gotten off to a better start.

The good news is that the team’s young core — Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber et al – should have more shots at a title in the next several years.

“A lot of these guys are still improving,’’ Epstein said. “As they move through their mid-20s into their late 20s, we expect them to get better and better. I think the No. 1 reason we’re going to be better in 2018 than we were in 2017 will come from our core guys improving more so than additions from the outside. I firmly believe that.’’

That core getting off to a fast start in 2018 would make forgetting 2017’s slow start a lot easier.