Here is an incomplete list of things that happened this year en route to the Chicago Cubs winning the National League Central Division title for the second straight year:
- Randal Grichuk’s opening-night walk-off against Mike Montgomery
- Milwaukee’s weather-related beef
- Having a worse run-differential than the White Sox in May
- Wade Davis being the only Cub named to the NL All-Star team
- Wade Davis being the losing pitcher in the All-Star Game
- Eddie Butler making 11 starts, Brett Anderson adding 6 more, and the two combining to pitch to a 5.65 ERA in 17 starts
- Brian Duensing beginning the year on the DL.
- Relief appearances from the following pitchers: Dylan Floro, Seth Frankoff, Jack Leathersich, Miguel Montero, Pierce Johnson, Zac Rosscup, Jon Jay
- Remember when Jeimer Candelario, Victor Caratini, Mark Zagunis spent a handful of games in the starting lineup?
I can’t stress enough how important it is to cherish what the 2017 Cubs accomplished by winning the NL Central again.
Baseball is hard. Winning in baseball is really hard.
Let’s not forget the Brewers spent 69 days in first place and owned a 5.5-game lead on July 15. The Cardinals had a share of first as late as August 12. Even the rebuilding Reds spent 17 days in first place – that’s three more days than the Cardinals (14) if you’re keeping score at home.
Winning only gets more difficult from here.
According to Ken Rosenthal, the Cubs are just the fifth World Series champion since 2000 to win the division in the following season. By my math, that means 69 percent of World Series winners have not won their division the year after winning it all.
Winning is hard. Repeats are harder.
In the Wild Card era, only the Yankees (1998-2000) have repeated as World Series champions. Those Yankees, along with the Atlanta Braves (1995-1996), Phillies (2008-2009) and Rangers (2010-2011) are the only teams to win back-to-back pennants.
Winning the division might have been framed as pre-ordained by some in the spring, however, it was anything but.
Nothing came easy for the 2017 Cubs. Each of the five starters who opened the season with the team spent time on the disabled list at some point. Jon Lester (shoulder), Jake Arrieta (hamstring), Kyle Hendricks (hand tendinitis), John Lackey (foot), and Brett Anderson (back) each missed turns in the rotation because of an injury.
Every day players including Ben Zobrist (wrist), Jason Heyward (hand), Willson Contreras (hamstring), and Addison Russell (plantar fascitis) were also placed on the DL.
In total, eight returning members of the 2016 World Series champions missed at least 10 days because of a DL stint. This doesn’t count the days Anthony Rizzo missed with a sore back, Kris Bryant narrowly avoided DL time because of a hand injury suffered sliding into third base or an ankle injury trying to catch a foul ball, or any other nagging injury along the way that players pushed through despite a new 10-day DL that was supposed to encourage teams to rest injured players.
What makes baseball enjoyable (to me at least) is that it’s an everyday thing that keeps you interested and entertained from April through September, while also allowing for time to take some big-picture perspective if you allow yourself to not get too caught up in the day-to-day results.
What made this season enjoyable to me was the journey the Cubs took to get here.
You’d think winning 200 regular season games, five playoff rounds, and a World Series over the last two years would buy you some wiggle room in the event of a 2017 hangover, but it wasn’t the case … at least, judging by my mentions on Twitter. And yet, winning the division and putting yourself in the postseason picture washes it all away.
Things like losing all six games in California to the Dodgers and Padres and watching the Cubs lose an 18-inning game on Sunday Night Baseball seem like they happened ages ago. And frankly, I’d be happy not to ever think about those games again.
Assembling consistent winners in modern baseball is difficult. Front offices are smarter. Organizations are deeper. The players throw the ball harder and hit it deeper into the night than ever before. Everyone has analytical skills that can be applied by stat guys, scouts, and sometimes both.
Once upon a time, winning a World Series was easy. Be the best team in your league, capture the pennant, and beat whoever represented the other league in the World Series. Now, you have to win your division or a one-game playoff round, beat two division winners, then knock off whoever comes out of the other league if you want to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy at year’s end.
For the first time in my lifetime, the Cubs are trying to win another World Series trophy. Now, imagine having that thought on Opening Day 2012.