Chicago Cubs headed back to NLCS

Published 6:29 am Wednesday, October 12, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Donning fresh postseason victory gear, the Chicago Cubs gathered on the mound and posed for a group photo. They jumped up and down, saluted the fans cheering “Cub-bies!” behind the visiting dugout and then took the party inside.

Step One in their October quest? Check.

Yet every one of manager Joe Maddon’s men recognizes the task ahead. The club with baseball’s best regular season record at 103-58 is being counted on to end a 108-year championship drought and all the pent-up frustration in the Windy City.

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Chicago is headed back to the NL Championship Series for a second straight year, eager to erase the memory of a four-game sweep to the New York Mets a season ago. Once Matt Moore’s stellar night was complete for San Francisco, the Cubs rallied with a four-run ninth in a 6-5 victory Tuesday night that eliminated the Giants in Game 4 of their NL Division Series.

The same Giants who had won the World Series in every even year this decade — 2010, ’12 and ’14 — and had succeeded in 10 straight postseason games when facing elimination.

“This is a special group,” Maddon said. “It’s pretty easy when you want to have kids act like kids. Listen, but you see them on the field, they play. We play hard. I think we play it right.”

Blue-clad loyalists stuck around the ballpark long after the final out, cheering and singing for the team favored to win the World Series from the start. The fans waited about an hour before finally heading for the exits.

Now, the Cubs go home to wait out Thursday’s Game 5 of the Dodgers-Nationals series and have a couple of days to rest their legs before Saturday’s NLCS opener.

Maddon will likely hand the ball to veteran left-hander Jon Lester in Game 1 at Wrigley Field because he wasn’t needed in a potential Game 5.

Chicago hasn’t been to the World Series since 1945, the year Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis supposedly placed his hex on North Siders.

No pressure, certainly not with this group that declines to feed the superstition chatter. No goat fear here, not with a roster packing the talent and the pluck to navigate the nerviest late-game situation.

“Nobody really cares in there about a curse or a goat or anything else,” Lester said. “If we make a mistake, we’re not going to blame it on a curse or anything else like that. We’re going to blame it on ourselves and be accountable for it and move on to the next play or the next moment.

“We got too many young guys in there that don’t even know what that stuff is,” he added. “So, it’s almost better to play naive and just go out and worry about us, worry about the Cubs and not anything else in the past or, like I said, any animals.”

In the ninth, Javier Baez hit a go-ahead single after pinch-hitter Willson Contreras tied it with a two-run single. Flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman closed it out, rebounding after his blown save Monday cost Chicago in a 13-inning 6-5 loss.

“Since Day One, we came to play hard,” Baez said.

Maddon and many others have spoken of the Cubs’ commitment to playing all 27 outs. That resolve has become a defining characteristic for the players hoping to show Wrigleyville a party for the ages.

“This is big. This is really big. Anytime you do that with a group, it just does a lot for that particular group’s confidence,” said outfielder Ben Zobrist, who won a title with Kansas City last year. “Every group has to kind of find that identity. We did it during the season, but you still have to find that identity in the postseason as well.

“It proved to be true that that’s the kind of team we have. Tonight we were able to put a good comeback together.”