Even in the gloomiest of times, Chicago Cubs manager David Ross didn’t completely abandon embattled closer Craig Kimbrel.
And despite a miserable performance by the offense this season, Ross never made sudden and radical changes to the lineup.
Ross’ loyalty will be put to the test, as will the legacy of the core group largely responsible for the 2016 World Series title, when the Cubs open their best-of-three National League wild-card series Wednesday at Wrigley Field against a young and relentless Miami Marlins team.
“Anything can happen in a short series,” said Ross, who admitted to feeling butterflies Monday night, “but I’m going to continue to rely on these guys that have gotten us to this point, trust that group of players and continue to find the right matchups for guys to be successful.”
Ross has put his trust in Kyle Hendricks to start Game 1, followed by Yu Darvish in Game 2 on Thursday. They formed one of the top tandems among the 16 playoff teams, but the Cubs’ fortunes will depend heavily on their ability to manufacture runs as effectively as they did during a 13-3 start, to harness the Marlins’ speed and to play smart and calm.
“I still have to trust in that group in that room,” Ross said. “The best managers I’ve been around in the postseason continue to bring the same attitude and the same preparation to the postseason that they did the regular season.
“You don’t want to really mix it up. You want your players to feel comfortable and going out there and being able to perform.”
Ross did say he won’t have as long a leash as he had during the regular season, when the Cubs led the NL Central for nearly the entire season.
So it will be up to that core group — Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, Jon Lester and Hendricks — as well as Kimbrel to provide the production and comfort needed for a deep playoff run that would temporarily postpone an inevitable breakup.
“Every year we’re together, it’s one year closer to when we cannot be together,” Schwarber said. “But we feel we’re here to do something special every year.
“The opportunities that we get to be great, make this city great and bring back this World Series championship again, only good things are going to happen to us. Hopefully that translates to some other things, if it’s us coming back and being here longer.”
Cubs President Theo Epstein, whose contract expires after 2021, remains focused on winning the 2020 World Series but understands the uncertainty of the future.
That’s based on the fact Bryant, Baez, Rizzo and Schwarber can become free agents after 2021 and Contreras after 2022, plus the massive reductions in the baseball and business departments resulting from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Of course there’s tremendous uncertainty,” Epstein said Sunday. “And all that means is that we put an even greater emphasis on living in the moment and not taking for granted the opportunity that we have right now as a group to go out and make some history and add to this group’s legacy.”
The Marlins present a unique challenge because they rely on two young power arms in starters Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez, they emphasize speed on the basepaths and the Cubs didn’t play them during the 60-game schedule.
The Cubs felt they got some preparation last weekend when they handled young White Sox pitchers Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning.
But there won’t be much of a home-field advantage because fans aren’t admitted due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We can’t take the new postseason experience lightly because we saw what we were able to do to a very experienced Cardinals team in 2015,” said Schwarber, who hit a home run that landed on top of the right-field scoreboard at Wrigley to punctuate the Cubs’ upset in that year’s NL Division Series.
From Hendricks, who started Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, to infielder David Bote, who was on the 2018 NL wild-card roster, to rookie infielder Nico Hoerner, the Cubs collectively understand the magnitude of this postseason.
“We know what’s at stake,” Schwarber said.
During the last week, the Cubs have been bonding in their playoff bubble and “creating that community,” according to Bote.
Now the mission becomes singular, with a 1-0 victory just as effective as a 9-8 triumph.
Despite earning a division title in his first season, Ross admitted to feeling “green many times.”
“I’ve gotten across from certain managers where you feel like they’re very organized in how they’re doing things,” he said.
Any feeling of being overmatched was tempered by a few managers who congratulated him on winning the division and wished him luck and lended advice.
One of those well-wishers was Ross’ predecessor, Joe Maddon, who led the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908 and helped change the culture of the franchise.
“They know how to play in this environment, and they expect a lot out of themselves from here,” Ross said of his players. “They’ll tell you what their ultimate goals are, so they know what it’s like playing pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat in this environment.
“This is the fun part. This is where you make history.”
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