On the day he cut ties with Miguel Montero for ripping Jake Arrieta, roughly half the team skipped a White House trip and the Cubs continued to hover around .500, Theo Epstein listened to a question about the identity of the defending champs.
The 2017 Cubs hadn’t been in first place in three weeks, didn’t know what they would get from their rotation, defense or lineup from one night to the next and couldn’t seem to come up with the answers for how to fix it.
“You can go on and on trying to define it,” Epstein said on a June 28 conference call with beat writers. “But it’s like what the Supreme Court said about pornography: You know it when you see it.”
Identity, culture, all those buzzwords can mean nothing or everything. But All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo – who lived through the last-place seasons in 2013 and 2014 and the 200-win turnaround in 2015 and 2016 – can see it now. You could hear it in the dance/rap music blasting through the walls of the Wrigley Field’s underground clubhouse late Tuesday night after a 16-4 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“The feeling is back,” said Rizzo, whose sore upper back didn’t stop him from launching his 25th and 26th home runs, two of the five the Cubs hit off the playoff-race-relevant Diamondbacks (60-46). “All those good vibes, all those good juices that we’ve had for the last couple years are back.
“It’s just a different look in guys’ eyes. It’s a different feeling. I can’t pinpoint it to one thing. It’s just everyone feels really good right now.”
The World Series hangover is gone for a team that is 14-3 since the All-Star break and up 2.5 games in the National League Central. Epstein’s front office delivered Jose Quintana in the middle of the month and kept adding before the July 31 deadline, acquiring lefty reliever Justin Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila from the Detroit Tigers.
Nothing could top the drama or urgency from 2016, but too often this team played sloppy or in scramble mode during the first half, making it a boring product at times. But the Cubs are getting weird again.
Yes, that was Jon Lester blasting Patrick Corbin’s 91-mph fastball into the left-center field bleachers for his first career home run, getting a big hug from John Lackey in the dugout and taking a curtain call in the third inning.
Lester also became the 25th lefty in big-league history to notch his 2,000th career strikeout – and walked off the mound shaking his head when manager Joe Maddon pulled him at 104 pitches with no outs in the fifth inning.
“It’s like a different team,” Lester said. “Now we add Avila and Wilson to that mix. It’s another big arm down in our bullpen that we can use late in the game – that’s huge. You get a guy like Q for a couple more years as well. We’re good.
“Guys are swinging the bats well. We’re having good, quality at-bats. With the exception of tonight, our starters are going deep into games.
“We’re going well right now. We’ll just keep it going.”
Maddon – who tries to rest, manage and push his players so they begin to find another gear in August – saw this kind of energy during that World Series run.
“Our confidence is definitely pointing in the right direction, so it’s starting to feel like that,” Maddon said. “I cannot deny it has more of a ‘15-‘16 feel as opposed to the beginning of ‘17.”
Instead of quoting a Supreme Court opinion, Maddon went with the car analogy and his uncle’s Plymouth.
“We keep hitting that thing, and it does not want to turn over, it does not want to engage,” Maddon said. “And all of a sudden, it just finally kicked in, and we’re starting to look like we’re supposed to look.
“I think about the engine that won’t start, and I think it’s just kicked in.”
With his home runs against the Diamondbacks Tuesday night, Anthony Rizzo moved further into the record books, and closer to being an all-time Chicago Cubs’ great.
The list of great Chicago Cubs players is growing right before our eyes. Jon Lester, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are certainly etching their names on that list. But, Anthony Rizzo is starting to scribe his name on another list. It is the list of all-time Cubs’ greats.
If you are anything like me, any time you watch the Cubs play you are in a glass case of emotion. One slight change in the game will cause your mood to swing faster than a teenager after their parents tell them no. Yet, when certain players come to the plate, you are filled with peace and hope. Right now, that player is probably Rizzo. Rightfully so.
Rizzo is one of the most consistent Cubs players. You know he will put up a great at-bat. He may not always come through, but the effort is always present. Add in his fun spirit and broad shoulders for carrying the team, and you have a great player.
I am glad you asked. He is one of the best in Cubs history. Period. Don’t believe me? Okay. Let me provide you some evidence.
Rizzo is currently in his six season with the Chicago Cubs. In the three previous seasons, he launched at least 25 home runs. Now, it is four seasons in a row after he launched two home runs off Arizona Diamondbacks pitching last night.
Here is a list of other left-handed Cubs batters with at least four consecutive seasons of 25 home runs:
Not good enough? Okay. How about all Cubs batters?
Williams, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, Aramis Ramirez, Hank Sauer, Hack Wilson and Sammy Sosa.
So, five Hall of Fame players, a three-time All-Star third-baseman, outfielder that earned the MVP, and Sosa.
Currently, Rizzo sits 14th on the Cubs’ all-time home run list with 159 so far. Thirteen more and he ties Andre Dawson. Should he keep up his average of 30 home runs per year – which he is on-pace to raise that average this year – he will become fifth on this list when his contract is up. He would pass Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Hack Wilson, Bill Nicholson, and Sandberg.
What more is that his career WAR numbers place him in the top 25 Cubs ever. Furthermore, he is already top 50 in many offensive categories for the team.
Sure. Rizzo will play for many more years. And, turning 28 in just a few days, he is in the prime of his career. If he keeps this up, we will see the number 44 on a white flag flying above Wrigley.