Wednesday night, after the Cleveland Indians punched their ticket to the World Series, my boss asked me, “Do you think the Cubs could beat the Indians?”
“Shush,” was my quick reply. “Just shush.”
I didn’t want to even entertain the thought of the Cubs in the fall classic. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I refuse.
13 years ago
The last time I did was 13 years ago.
Cubs fans were buzzing during that 2003 season. With a rotation that featured phenom Mark Prior, superstar Kerry Wood and up-and-comer Carlos Zambrano, the starting rotation could take us to the promised land. No doubt.
And that’s not even mentioning the offensive firepower, including a Sammy Sosa in his Slammin’ Sammy prime, the always-solid Moises Alou and midseason acquisitions Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton.
All of that potential was realized in a pedestrian 88-74 record, but that was good enough for a National League Central Division crown, winning it by a game over then-National League rival Houston, and a date in the National League Division Series against the perennial power Atlanta Braves and their 101 wins.
By all accounts, the Cubs shouldn’t have beaten that Braves team, who shared baseball’s best record with the New York Yankees. After all, Chicago had the worst record among playoff teams, two games behind their American League counterparts, the Minnesota Twins, and three games short of the NL wildcard Florida Marlins.
It should’ve been a short postseason for Chicago. It should’ve been. But those plucky Cubs got our hopes up as they went the distance against the Braves and eventually, unbelievably, won the series in Atlanta.
Then, after losing Game 1 of the NLCS against the Florida Marlins, who themselves had beaten the 100-win San Francisco Giants in their NLDS, Chicago rattled off three straight for a 3-1 series lead.
With a two-game advantage, the Cubs had room for error as they sent out Zambrano to face Josh Beckett for Game 5 in Miami, but the Florida right-hander was too much as he fired a masterful two-hit, complete-game shutout to stop the bleeding for the Marlins.
It’s alright. After all, it’s better to win this thing in Chicago. At least that’s how we consoled ourselves after such a solid beatdown.
But really, Cubs fans were feeling pretty good about ending the series after six. An 18-win Prior, sporting a 2.43 ERA, tops among Cubs starting pitchers, was taking the bump against Carl Pavano, who sported an umimpressive 12-13 record with a 4.30 ERA, the worst among Florida’s starting rotation.
Cubs fans and Wrigley Field itself were vibrating with anticipation.
And those feelings were rewarded as Chicago started the scoring in the bottom of the first with a double by Sosa, scoring the always-speedy Lofton. They added to the lead in the bottom of the sixth as Dontrelle Willis, Game 4’s starting pitcher who came on in relief, uncorked a wild pitch allowing Sosa to score, making it 2-0. The Cubs added another tally the following inning as second baseman Mark Grudzielanek singled off of reliever Chad Fox, scoring catcher Paul Bako.
A 3-0 lead should’ve been more than enough for Prior, who was cruising along.
We were set. This was it. We’re gonna do it.
But then, the top of the eighth happened. The infamous Steve Bartman interfered with Alou’s attempt at snagging a foul ball. The usually sure-handed shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a routine grounder. And the dam broke for an 8-run inning, and the buzz was gone.
History — and the curse — again had shown itself to be too formidable as the Cubs lost Game 6, 8-3.
Game 7 came and went with the eventual World Series champion Marlins winning, 9-6.
Even after 13 years, that Game 6 still preys on my mind and has me nervous about tonight’s Game 6, which is back at Wrigley Field, again, and features No. 5 starter-turned-Cy Young-contender Kyle Hendricks against one of the all-time greats in Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
In Game 2, they faced off in a 1-0 pitchers duel in Chicago.
If you remember, that was the start of the Cubs’ two-game streak of offensive futility when they were shut out in Games 2 and 3. It was easy to explain away the Kershaw game, but journeyman left-hander Rich Hill? Not so much.
Since then, the Cubs exploded for 18 runs in Games 4 and 5 and have jumped out to a 3-2 series lead, once again giving hope to fans who thought those ugly games in Chicago and LA were the beginning of the end. A collapse of epic proportions. The curse showing itself yet again.
I’ll admit it. Like fellow Cubs fan Steve Dunn in his post looking forward to tonight’s game, I was worried.
It didn’t look good. You can have the best pitching and defense in the world, which the Cubs seem to possess, but you have to score runs, and they couldn’t hit, let alone cross the plate.
To me, it had the feel of the 2008 NLDS against these same Dodgers in which the lifeless Cubs were dominated in a three-game sweep by a combined score of 20-6 and didn’t score more than 3 runs in any single game.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Addison Russell weren’t helping matters this postseason as they were a combined 2-30 in the NLDS against the Giants, and, heading into Game 4 of the NLCS, their woes continued to the tune of a combined 1-20.
It’s pretty hard to enjoy any kind of success when two of your everyday studs are a combined 3 for 50 to start the playoffs.
But that all changed in Game 4 as Rizzo and Russell broke out in a big way with nearly identical stat lines, both going 3 for 5 with a home run. Rizzo had 3 RBIs to Russell’s 2.
Game 5 saw that trend continue as Russell went 2 for 5 with another homer and a pair of ribbies. Rizzo also went 2 for 5 with a single RBI.
The result? Those two aforementioned wins and a serious shift in momentum.
So, the offense is shaping back into form, and the pitching staff has remained solid — and rested. Like clockwork, it’s been Jon Lester, Hendricks, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, and there’s been no reason to deviate.
Even when the Cubs were down 2-1 in the series just a few days ago, skipper Joe Maddon stayed with Lackey, who proved himself more than worthy of his playoff roster spot.
And the historic defense also has continued, with highlight reel plays seemingly every inning, most of them from second baseman Javier Baez.
It was almost like the pitching and defense were waiting for the offense to eventually come around and again become that seemingly unbeatable 103-win regular season team.
Everything looks good. Everything looks fine. The Cubs look complete.
Kershaw stands in the way
But will any of that matter when facing Kershaw? He’s having a heck of a postseason himself.
After a regular season marred by a nagging back injury, he’s shown himself to be the playoff bulldog Dodger fans thought he could be, capping the NLDS with a Game 5 save — yes, a save — against the Washington Nationals on a single day of rest after his Game 4 start, a usually unheard-of move.
He was stellar in Game 2 of the NLCS and stands in the way of the Cubs and their first World Series in 71 years.
But the Dodgers’ starting rotation pretty well begins and ends with Kershaw, and, with the injury he suffered earlier this season putting him on the 60-day disabled list and Game 6 being his fifth appearance since the Dodgers’ playoff run began just over two weeks ago, you have to figure he’ll have a less-than-stellar start at some point, won’t he?
Will that happen tonight? This postseason? Maybe. Maybe not.
On paper, it’s shaping up to be a battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
Who’ll come out on top? Who’ll blink? What about 2003? And what about that curse, that history?
Well, according to a USA Today report, the always-spunky Arrieta has some strong feelings about that.
“(Expletive) history,” he said.
I wish I could be so confident.
But, as always, I remain nervous.
After all, we’ve seen this before.