Cubs count on April power to help bring champagne showers
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PHOENIX – The Cubs’ obsession with the moment, this fixation on present tense – in many ways it can be boiled down to one word.
If the Cubs learned anything from their surprising surge to October last year, it is that the baseball sages are wrong when they say pennants can’t be won in April, but can be lost in April.
“This first week of the season is important, just as important as the last week of the season,” said 34-year-old newcomer Ben Zobrist, fresh off a championship with the Royals and the closest thing in the Cubs’ clubhouse to a sage these days. “When it’s crunch time, everybody knows it’s important at the end of the season. But right now it’s just as important. We’ve got to remember that.”
They certainly seemed to do that much during the opening series in Anaheim, where they outscored the Angels 15-1 in a two-game sweep before heading to Arizona for Thursday’s opener of a four-game series against MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt, former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and the rest of the Diamondbacks.
“I think it’s just a testament of everything coming together,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, one of three Cubs to homer in Tuesday night’s 6-1 victory. “Our confidence level’s high, obviously. This is what we can do, and we know what we can do. Now it’s just about doing it everyday.”
Specifically now. In April.
Last year, when little was expected of a team coming off five consecutive fifth-place finishes, the Cubs were 15-15 roughly a month into the season.
Which was considered good. It certainly seemed like progress – and reason for optimism in longer-term growth.
But then they went 82-50 the rest of the way, earned the league’s final postseason berth, fought through a wild-card playoff game and a Division Series they were forced to open on the road, before their season was extinguished by the Mets in a four-game, NLCS sweep.
“Last year we learned how to win,” Rizzo said.
They also learned how a few games in the first month of a season can impact opportunities in October.
Their 97 wins were good for third in the National League Central, three games behind the division-winning Cardinals. Three or four more victories early, and they would have avoided the wild card and secured home advantage through the NL playoffs.
In fact, two games would have made the difference if the reversals came against the Cardinals (who beat the Cubs in four of six games that first month).
“That’s obviously something that we’re going to try to be effective at, just to not have to climb out of a hole or come back from five or six games back,” said ace Jake Arrieta, who toyed with the Angels for seven innings in Monday’s 9-0 victory in the season opener.
“We know, especially after the experiences we had last year with the teams in our division,” he said, “that it’s going to be even more important for us to try and jump ahead of the pack quickly.”
The Cubs also have an advantage this season in spending the first week in temperate climes instead of going from Arizona spring training straight into the body shock of the frigid confines.
And by the time they return home for Monday’s Wrigley Field opener – and to the just-completed largest clubhouse in the National League – they’ll open a 19-game stretch that includes 16 games against teams that are rebuilding and/or tanking this year.
They’re already 2-0 for the first time since 1995, when they won their first four games.
“It feels like we’re really picking up where we left off in the regular-season last year,” said Rizzo, whose 2015 Cubs won their final eight games of the season. “[The same feeling’s] back, and everyone’s on the same page, and the same – as [manager] Joe [Maddon] says, frequency.
“We’re not looking ahead at anything now.”