TELANDER: There’s more than one way to skin a Nat
There are many ways to get to the World Series, and the Cubs have demonstrated two of them.
Well, one way, for sure.
In 2016, they simply blew out of the gates with the best team in baseball, finishing with a major-league-best 103-58 record. They then rode through the postseason and hung on to beat the Indians in the seventh game of the World Series.
That, of course, marked the Cubs’ first championship in 108 years.
Another way to get to the summit is the way this year’s team will (might) do it.
That would be to struggle through the regular season, never being certain until the end about beating out the Brewers or Cardinals for the division title, then going up against a powerhouse in the first round like the Nationals.
This year, the Cubs finished with a 92-70 record, not bad, considering that as late as Aug. 10 they were only five games above .500. But they didn’t steamroll to the postseason. It wasn’t the wild, hilarious hayride of 2016.
And now they face a team that went 97-65 and that some folks believe has the best pitching staff in the National League. Even if ace Max Scherzer is hampered by a strained hamstring, that still leaves flaming-hot Stephen Strasburg to lead the way. Indeed, Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, reliever Matt Albers and closer Sean Doolittle all have ERAs under 3.00.
And that’s only the pitching side. Cubs fans will remember Daniel Murphy, the slugger who bedeviled the Cubs in the 2015 postseason while with the Mets. Unfortunately, he’s now with the Nats, and as Cubs manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday, ‘‘I still wish he was a Met.’’
Then there’s everybody’s candidate for Mr. Feisty But Talented, Bryce Harper. The bearded fellow missed 51 games because of injury, but he still scored a team-high 95 runs, hit 29 home runs and 27 doubles and knocked in 87 runs.
It’s also necessary to mention speedy shortstop Trea Turner, who stole 46 bases in an era in which it seems that nobody steals anything but simply waits on base to be knocked in by a homer.
Then, if the Cubs were to get past the Nationals, they likely would face the powerful Dodgers, a baffling team that was a full 50 games above .500 in mid-August before imploding and scuffling the rest of the way. They likely scuffled because there was no challenge after taking that massive division lead. But who knows?
Obviously, we’re way ahead of ourselves here. But the one thing that has to be mentioned is the Cubs’ drive for a World Series last year and their drive this year cannot possibly be the same, motivation-wise.
Last year, the ghosts of cats and goats and Moises Alou and Mark Prior and ancient ladies glued to transistor radios all over America swirled around the Cubs like vapors from a haunted swamp. This year? Hey, a repeat would be nice. But not necessary.
It’s hard to say if that lack of urgency is a good thing or a bad thing. Pressure can push teams to great heights or make them choke.
The Nationals never have achieved greatness in their history — which dates back to 2005. Before that, they were the Montreal Expos, but it’s hard to think of Gary Carter and Vladimir Guerrero as part of the Nationals’ timeline.
There’s no question Nats general manager and Chicago native Mike Rizzo (a onetime Cubs fan) would love to send the Cubs back to Chicago down 2-0 for the next two games at Wrigley Field. There’s no question he’d like to break the budding jinx that seems to sink the Nats whenever they get close to a big goal.
We won’t even bring up Nats skipper Dusty Baker, who once managed the Cubs and didn’t leave town feeling all sweet and rosy about his experience in Chicago.
So the Cubs’ map to another year of greatness is laid out (did we mention the American League darling Indians?) with all its looming bumps and hurdles.
It might not be possible to repeat, but it should be fun trying.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.