The Chicago Cubs have repeated as 2017 NL Central Champions.
How many of us thought that was going to happen just two-and-a-half months ago?
On July 9, in the last game before the All-Star Break, ace Jon Lester gave up ten runs to the Pirates in an ugly first inning at Wrigley Field as Pittsburgh cruised to a 14-3 win. That loss put the Cubs two games under .500, at 43-45, and 5.5 games behind the Brewers for first place.
That was just one game, but it was a fitting way to end the most frustrating first half I can remember. Sure, the Cubs have had far worse first halves of seasons, but it was maddening that a team with so much talent could not pull away from an otherwise mediocre NL Central field. It seemed that every time they would win a few games and were getting back on track, they would lose a few and kill any momentum they had built. The Cubs and the .500 mark became well acquainted during the first three months of the season.
Virtually everyone who returned from last year’s World Series Championship team regressed in performance in the first half. Despite such a young roster, there was not one player who significantly improved his performance over last year. Was it a “World Series Hangover” as many suggested? Were they tired or still distracted from last year’s run? I’d hate to think so, but it’s hard to find another explanation for why the whole team was struggling. It even seemed they were bit by the injury bug more than they were last year.
The fact that the team still played .500 ball despite all this is somewhat amazing and speaks to how much talent is on this roster. Some observers criticized the front office for not making enough moves this offseason, but it was the newcomers such as Jon Jay, Wade Davis, Brian Duensing, Mike Montgomery (for a full season), and the rookie Ian Happ who performed better than we were expecting and helped to keep this team afloat.
Whatever the Cubs had lost in the first half, they immediately found it after the break, thanks in large part to the surprising acquisition of Jose Quintana from the White Sox. The team’s 6-0 road trip through Baltimore and Atlanta right after the break quickly turned their season around, and by July 26 they were already back in first place and have stayed there since.
The second half hasn’t been without drama, however. Despite playing better these last couple of months, the Brewers and Cardinals would not go away. It was not even three weeks ago that the Brewers came into Wrigley Field and swept all three games, causing the Cubs’ lead of five games to quickly shrink to just two and sending the fans back into panic mode. But the team regrouped and came through when they needed to the most, sweeping three at Wrigley against the Cardinals a week later and taking three of four in a hard-fought series in Milwaukee, all but sealing a return trip to the postseason for the defending champions. Wednesday’s division-clinching win capped an impressive 46-24 second-half run.
After last year, it was hard not to be lulled into a sense of security. Teams that dominate from wire-to-wire like the 2016 Cubs are few and far between – the 1984 Tigers and 1998 Yankees also come to mind, but there aren’t many others. Though we expected many of the Cubs’ star young players to keep getting better, it was easy to forget how rare a season like 2016 is, when everything possible goes right. As fun as 2016 was, at least during the regular season, there was no uncertainty, no anticipation of whether the Cubs were going to get the job done. By the end of April, we already knew the Cubs would run away with the division.
But this year, we learned again to take nothing for granted. And given this team’s history, I think we needed that reminder. Almost every victory was hard-earned and hardly any seemed inevitable before the game began. That’s how it is most years, no matter how good your team is. And that’s how it should be, though we do enjoy the occasional dominant season. Without uncertainty and drama, the game would be no fun. This year, the Cubs became the first defending champion in seven years to win their division the following year and the first in four years to even return to the playoffs. It’s quite an accomplishment.
In some ways, I found this year’s regular season to be more satisfying than last year’s was. We want the Cubs to win in the playoffs again this year, but for now, those of us who stuck with the Cubs all year and didn’t jump off the bandwagon should take pride in this hard-fought division title. If nothing else, it taught us some new lessons on how to be a fan.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.