(Image Courtesy of Rod Frankum via Flickr)

Baseball is Hard

It’s the Hard that makes it Great

When you reach the top, expectations need to be tempered, because the most likely outcome otherwise will be disappointment.

The Chicago Cubs seem to be finding it difficult to gain any traction in the year after they won the World Series. The starting pitching is languishing, the hitting is anemic at best, and the defense can be spotty at times. And the Cubs still find themselves playing .500 ball within striking distance from the top of the division.

As any Cubs fan can attest, it is very hard to win a World Series. After a brush with greatness in 2015, the Chicago Cubs made their presence felt with overwhelming play that led to a Championship. However, game seven was a home run away from being just another Cubs playoff choke. What would have been just another in a long line of Cubs playoff epic failures behind the sweeps of ’15, ’08, ’07, and the heartbreaker against the Marlins in ’03. If Michael Martinez had hit a 2 run home run off Michael Montgomery to hand the series win to the Indians, then this 2017 start would have been the beginning of the end for the Maddon and Epstien era in Chicago.

The history of teams repeating in the World Series is a short list in the 21st century, with exactly zero teams since the Yankees achieved the feat from 1998–2000. The Yanks would have won their 4th consecutive title in 2001 if not for game seven heroics by Luis Gonzalez that won the series for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Every World Series victor failed to reach the playoffs in the following season since 2012. The World Champion Giants, the Red Sox, the Giants again, and the Royals all fell short of the postseason the following year. The 2011 World Champion Cardinals were the last team to reach the playoffs the following year in 2012, only to lose to the Giants in the NLCS. The Cubs made the World Series run for the first time in 108 years and came one pitch away from prospectively losing it. It took overwhelming talent in all aspects of the game, from starting pitching, to the defense, to the hitting, to arguably the best closer in the game in order to finally put over a century of curses to rest for the north side.

What, then can we attribute this sluggish start from our Cubbies reminiscent of the 2012 101 loss squad? Fatigue is an argument. It’s a bigger argument when one considers the Cleveland Indians are also hovering around .500 after playing into the depths of November. In fact, in OPS for 2017 Cleveland sits at 21 overall (.717) just one spot ahead of the Cubs at 22 (.715). The Cubs actually have 20 more runs (172) than the Indians (152) and rank #13 and #21 respectively in the MLB in offensive categories. So as far as the fatigue element is concerned, there may be some truth to that fact. Coaches often see their teams run through emotional ups and downs, and good coaches can get their teams to focus when things get ugly, and for Joe Maddon, this has been no easy task.

Every single member of the Cubs organization will be lionized on the north side of Chicago. Not a single player will have to pay for a meal, or a drink, or a cab ever again in the Windy City. Dexter Fowler could stroll up Michigan Avenue in all his Cardinals gear and Cubs fans would be throwing themselves at him in gratitude. The immense pressure of a franchise plagued by losing for over a century evaporated in all the euphoria that November could bring, and it left the team in the blue pinstripes without a sense of urgency for the first time in even the most distant memory.

Kris Bryant could retire today, and Cubs Fans everywhere would talk about how he’s a sure-in Hall of Famer (Photo Courtesy Ricky Arroliga via Flickr)

The shirts with the “In Grind We Trust” and talk of “Play like its 109” haven’t been able to motivate the north side superstars to bear down on the young season and focus. Mental Lapses have tied the cubs in 3rd place for Errors in Major League Baseball in this young 2017 season with 30, right next to the Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres. All the catch phrases and witty t-shirts are a poor excuse for actual defensive focus. We are almost a quarter of the way into the 2017 season and the defending champs are missing grounders and bouncing throws to first base like it’s still spring training. Early on people focused on the bullpen as the problem, then it became the pitching as a whole, but people forget that good defense makes good pitching look great, and bad defense makes average pitching look horrendous.

Now the Cubs are bringing up minor leaguers like Happ and Candelario to “showcase for a trade,” as the Cubs announcers like to propagate. But what the minor leaguers are really here to do, besides sub in for Kris Bryant while he has the flu, is begin to motivate a team with no drive to compete, and no drive to sacrifice for a championship now that they’ve won the final game in the MLB season. The club thinks that competition will motivate the players to perform on the field, I think this logic dismisses the obvious; that every player on the Cubs could end their season today and still remain legends.

Win or Lose, everyone in Chicago will forever remember these names (Photo Courtesy Lucy Rendler-Kaplan via Flickr)

So what is the answer? What is the key to the Cubs performing at the championship level we all came to know and love during the 2017 season? The answer is interwoven between lack of leadership for the catching corps, to the failed Anderson experiment ending, to a more effective use of the best closer in baseball on a .500 squad.

The bottom line for the Cubs is choice. Each player has to choose to focus. Each individual on the Cubs roster must put forth effort with the same 2016 desire they had a year ago that propelled them to a 26–5 start. I’m cynical about a team who is playing with house money for the rest of their perspective careers. I’m unsure about pitchers who have steadily declined since 2015, and an infield defense that seems as unfocused in May as it did in March.

Gatorade commercials with Schwarber lifting weights leave him as still a poor excuse for what passes as a leadoff hitter to Joe Maddon. The man is obviously is a 5 hole hitter to everyone else watching, but every game he gets trotted out there to strike out, or worse, clog up the base paths of the speedier hitters behind him in the lineup.

Other teams make adjustments to winning teams, and winning teams have to adjust to the adjustments being made or they will spend October playing golf.

Bottom line is the Cubs have given in to mental impassivity. Call it a “Championship Hangover” if you must, but our boys are not playing at full speed and we are at the quarter mark of the season.

The Cubs need a pivot point. Most fans think the flow of the season will just take hold, and the Cubs will fall back into the groove of their winning ways that came so naturally last year. Joe Maddon spent so much time and energy last season deflecting pressure and stress from the ball club that was elite on paper, that now he has to do the opposite and bring some urgency and focus to his team. The good news is we are only 37 games into the season, and are still grasping at a .500 record. Other than that, the Cubs have to show us that they can focus and play like the players we know they are.

Until that happens, we can all plan on a long off season.

Big Ben Martin has a big deep love for his Chicago Cubs. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and based on Big Ben’s love for the Cubs we would have to agree. When not playing the role of Big Ben he might be found as his alter ego Big Cynical Ben on Twitter.