Let’s not make a big deal over the Cubs winning a playoff series at home for the first time. It’s not like they’ve won that many on the road.
The Cubs’ NLDS series win over the Cardinals was just the fourth postseason victory in their history, and the first two were more than 100 years ago. After winning 10 of their first 15 postseason games in the 20th century, the Cubs are now 21-51 since.
But they beat the Cardinals for a simple reason: they’re a better team. The Cardinals beat the Cubs on the first Sunday of the season, moved into first place for good less than two weeks later and won 100 games.
But since that Sunday night game, the Cubs have been steadily improving. They added Kris Bryant within two weeks, Kyle Schwarber by June and Javier Baez in late summer. None of them made the Cubs for Opening Day, for different reasons, but all of them started in the postseason (Baez because of an injury to Addison Russell, who followed Bryant to the majors) , and all of them homered.
The Cardinals have steadily declined, depleted by injuries. They lost their ace pitcher, Adam Wainwright, before April ended and two prime hitters, Matt Holliday and Matt Adams, by mid-summer and then young pitcher Carlos Martinez and catcher Yadier Molina in the season’s final month.
Youngsters Randall Grichuk — who injured an elbow — and Stephen Piscotty replenished the offense, but it’s a lot easier to replace corner outfielders than it is pitchers who throw 200 innings. Most of the Cardinals made it back in some form, but their effectiveness was compromised.
Piscotty, who homered three times in the four games, had as keen a view of the series as he did of opponents’ pitches. “I’ll be shocked if they’re not in the World Series or winning it,” Piscotty said of the Cubs. “They really, ah (pause) … They swing it well.”
Piscotty is right, and the series was no more complicated than that. Remember that the next time someone utters the cliche about good pitching beating good hitting in Ocotber. After being three-hit in the opener by John Lackey, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal, the Cubs had 18 singles and 16 extra-base hits, including 12 home runs, in the next three games, all against the pitching staff with the lowest ERA in baseball.
They even homered off Lackey, by Baez on a pitch, as is his wont, that might not even have been a strike, ending Lackey’s streak of 75.2 innings without allowing a postseason homer.
A years ago Cardinals Mike Matheny was criticized, and rightly so, for bringing Michael Wacha into a tied elimination game. This series wasn’t about Matheny giving Cardinals pitchers bad matchups; it was about Cubs hitters winning all of the matchups, even good ones for the Cardinals.
Matheny brought Siegrist, his late-inning lefty, into Game 3 in the fifth inning and Game 4 in the sixth, just to make sure he pitched to the Cubs’ most dangerous left-handed bats, Anthony Rizzo and Schwarber.
Siegrist gave up four home runs in 74.2 innings all season, but he gave up three in two days to the Cubs, including two to Rizzo. “We had the guy on the mound we wanted to go against Rizzo,” said Matheny, which was true. But it makes you wonder what might have happened if they didn’t.
Like the Cubs, the Red Sox went a long time — 86 years — between World Series titles. The Sox have won two more since, but the first one is always the hardest. As Cubs fans surely know.