Majors-best Cubs embrace challenge of ending World Series drought

Cubs manager Joe Maddon called closer Aroldis Chapman, right, slapping five with Willson Contreras, a “game-changer.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon called closer Aroldis Chapman, right, slapping five with Willson Contreras, a “game-changer.” The Associated Press

Music pulsed through a speaker in the visiting clubhouse at the Oakland Coliseum, bracing on a Saturday morning, bouncing from country to hip-hop to rap. In the middle of the room, a few Cubs relaxed on couches, while nearby Jake Arrieta, the day’s starting pitcher, pedaled away on a stationary bike. Every so often, a player walked by wearing a red T-shirt bearing the words “Do Simple Better.”

The meaning of that brief message? “Dude, I don’t know,” said relief pitcher Joe Smith, grinning. “You’re asking the wrong guy.”

“Do Simple Better” is a Joe Maddon slogan, one of the quips that convey the manager’s laid-back, sometimes eccentric philosophy. “Try not to suck” is another popular mantra, judging by the number of Cubs fans at the weekend series in Oakland who wore it across their chests, flanking an image of Maddon’s thick-framed glasses. Then there’s “Embrace the target.”

The latter is what Maddon told his players when they arrived for spring training in February, borrowing the phrase from a Tom Clancy novel. The Cubs were coming off an appearance in the National League Championship Series and an offseason spent improving their roster. For a team that won its last World Series the year Ford introduced the Model T (1908), the expectations this season figured to be sky high, the scrutiny magnified.

Smith, 32, knows a little about the Cubs’ long wait, having grown up a fan of the team in Cincinnati. But his was an outsider’s perspective – until a week ago, when the Los Angeles Angels traded the sidewinding right-hander to Chicago. Now Smith is part of a team that, armed with the best record in baseball (69-41), has some daring to hope this might finally be the year the drought ends.

“From the outside looking in, you know they’re good,” Smith said. “And when you get here, you just see the camaraderie of the team. Everybody’s together, everybody’s on the same page, going in the same direction. There’s not a lot of worry about minor details. Everything’s about getting yourself ready to play, and coming out and doing it, and winning ballgames.”

No team has done that better than the Cubs this season. Hours after that calm clubhouse scene Saturday morning, the Cubs beat the struggling A’s 4-0 behind eight innings from Arrieta. At that point, their run differential of plus-180 was by far the best in the majors, 46 runs higher than the second-best Nationals. Their pitching staff had the lowest ERA (3.17) in baseball and their lineup the third-highest OPS (.770).

Just as valuable an asset, a handful of players said, has been the ability to keep a narrow focus. After beating his former team Friday night, Cubs left-hander Jon Lester shrugged off a question about the team looking toward October.

“We’ve got a long ways to go to the finish line,” Lester said. “I hope nobody’s worried about the finish line right now. We’ve got a good team. We feel good about ourselves. But one thing I’ve said since really the middle of last year, I feel like Joe’s done a good job of making sure everybody here in this clubhouse, we play one game at a time. We’re not worried about September, October right now.”

That won’t keep fans from considering the possibilities. Calvin Switzer attended Friday’s game in Oakland wearing a Derrek Lee jersey. The 53-year-old from Natomas said 2016 is an “exciting” time to be a Cubs fan.

“We’ve had some exciting times every decade, it seems,” Switzer said. “But now it really seems like, man, this is finally going to be it.”

The Cubs briefly ceded the majors’ best record last month to the Giants amid a 5-15 skid before the All-Star break. Since then, however, they are 17-6, with their pitchers posting a collective 2.43 ERA. Arrieta, the reigning N.L. Cy Young winner who won for the first time in six starts Saturday, is one of four Cubs ranked among the top 15 starters in the league in ERA, along with Kyle Hendricks, Lester and Jason Hammel.

Though relatively quiet before the trade deadline, the Cubs did make one resonant move, acquiring flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees. Maddon on Friday called Chapman “a game-changer.”

“There’s certain guys that really change the methods with which you play and how you are viewed from outside looking in,” Maddon said. “He has all that going on.”

If nothing else, it reinforced the idea that the Cubs, led by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, are positioning for another deep postseason run – something not lost on the players in the clubhouse.

“The team’s going for it – that’s what you want,” said Hendricks, who pitched the Cubs past the A’s on Sunday, 3-1. “You want to win championships. That’s fun. You need to look at the positive side of it, and I think the majority of guys in this locker room do. It’s a positive, something we can accomplish, something we’re going out to do.”

Should they do so, these Cubs could end more than a century of heartbreak, close calls and curses. This possibility is what their manager tells them to embrace.

“To be able to do it just for us would be awesome,” Smith said. “To be able to do it and put that to rest, the wait for the city, would be even more unbelievable. I don’t know if you can know what it would mean to Cubs fans. That place would go absolutely berserk. And I feel like all of us want to see it go absolutely nuts, too.

“I don’t think we take it as pressure by any means. I think we just look at it like, man, this would be fun. It’s such a calm, confident group here that just has a lot of fun. If we keep that same attitude, that same personality of this team, good things are going to happen.”