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‘Pissed off’ Cubs ready to take 2018 frustration out on the field in new year

MESA, Arizona – Pitchers and catchers report Tuesday for the Cubs – the team that has ached as much as any other in baseball since October to reach that moment.

“The end of last season was a collective failure that we need to own,” team president Theo Epstein said, “which is a strange thing to say for a 95-win team. But that’s the reality.”

That’s the power of high-elevation expectations crashing so quickly to the ground in losses on back-to-back days in a division tiebreaker and wild-card game on your home field – scoring two runs in 22 innings on the way to a long, bitter offseason.

“We were all pissed off that it ended the way it did,” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said.

Ian Happ doubles in a game for the Cubs last spring. (John Antonoff photo)

The offseason didn’t go much better for the Cubs, whose payroll budget kept them from adding any significant players, whose decision so far to stick with shortstop Addison Russell through his domestic violence suspension cost them heavy public blowback at every stage of that process and whose franchise image just took another hit last week with the publication of racist emails by ownership patriarch Joe Ricketts.

But the sun shone brightly over the Cubs’ spring training facility on Monday, as players and staff roamed in and out to prepare to start fresh this week – two dozen pitchers already starting to throw bullpen sessions for new pitching coach Tommy Hottovy in recent days. Veteran left-handers Jon Lester and Cole Hamels both were at the facility Monday.

Epstein has labeled this season a year of “reckoning” after two years that fell short in October after the Cubs’ 2016 championship. Manager Joe Maddon enters the final year of his contract with no talks planned until late in the season or after – if at all. And the young hitting core, too, is under more scrutiny from the front office this year as the team looks for growth offensively – with the promise from Epstein of reevaluation of those core pieces otherwise.

But this is where it finally starts, where all that talk during the winter about still believing in this group and about demonstrating more urgency after last year’s face-plant gets the chance to show up in action – even if it’s just cutoff drills and pitcher’s fielding practice for a while.

They get to start over, to lose at least a little of that bitter taste of October’s quick exit, to rebuild expectations of a team that’s nobody’s pennant favorite as they open camp this time around.

In the Cubs’ division alone, the Brewers have upgraded since falling one victory short of the World Series; the Cardinals added big names in slugger Paul Goldschmidt and pitchers Andrew Miller; and even the last-place Reds went on a shopping binge over the winter to upgrade their starting rotation and anr already good lineup.

It doesn’t get any easier this time around for the Cubs.

But they are almost all healthy – in particular potential impact players Yu Darvish (elbow) and Kris Bryant (shoulder) upbeat and full strength as camp opens after injuries waylaid much of their 2018 seasons.

And if they haven’t rediscovered the hunger of 2016, they seem at least “pissed.”

Epstein has talked since the week of that exit that he believes the Cubs have lacked a daily urgency since winning that long-sought title in 2016.

“It hasn’t been like it’s all complacent all the time,” said the architect of a team that has reached the playoffs four straight years and averaged 97 regular-season wins in that stretch. “We have great players, and they play hard, and we’ve done so many things well. But, again, [if we’re] being honest with ourselves, it hasn’t been the sense of urgency that we probably need to get all the way to where we want to go.

“And the way last season ended is the greatest motivator there could possibly be, and now it’s all about channeling that in a productive way to go play.”