One chapter ended Sunday afternoon for the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, and another begins.
They navigated the obstacles of this pandemic-shortened 60-game season, overcame all of the skeptics and doubters and moved on to the postseason together for the first time in 12 years.
Now comes the fun part, a chance to reboot, bury the forgettable season stats and prove they’re playoff-bubble-worthy teams.
After nearly blowing a nine-run lead in a 10-8 win over the Sox on Sunday in the finale of the City Series and of the regular season, the third-seeded Cubs will play host to the Miami Marlins on Wednesday in the opener of their best-of-three wild-card series at Wrigley Field.
The Sox blew a golden chance to host a first-round series at Guaranteed Rate Field, falling to third place in the American League Central and the No. 7 seed in the wild-card round. They’ll now travel to Oakland on Tuesday to take on the Athletics.
The odds of the first Cubs-Sox World Series since 1906 are firmly stacked against them.
The Sox may be too inexperienced and picked the worst time of the year to go into a teamwide slump, averaging 3.7 runs per game while losing nine of their last 12 games. The status of star left fielder Eloy Jimenez is uncertain after he missed the final three games with a sprained right foot. Shortstop Tim Anderson ended the season in a 1-for-24 slump after competing all season for the AL batting title. And outside the top two starters, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, the playoff rotation is basically a coin flip.
The Cubs started out 13-3 and never looked back, but they also never put together another prolonged hot streak the rest of the season. They finished with the worst batting average in franchise history. They lack rotation depth after Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. And the bullpen remains a question mark outside of closer Jeremy Jeffress.
As we’ve seen time and time again over the last several months, anything is possible in 2020.
In that case, you probably can pencil the Cubs and Sox into the World Series bubble at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Nothing could be more 2020 than the much-fantasized Crosstown World Series being played 1,000 miles from Chicago.
Perhaps the motto both Chicago teams need to adopt in the 2020 postseason was uttered Saturday night by Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant when asked about all the criticism he has endured on Twitter during a difficult season plagued by injuries and inconsistency.
“I don’t give a (bleep),” Bryant said, then repeated himself in case anyone missed it.
Reporters wracked their brains trying to recall whether the mild-mannered Bryant had cursed publicly before. The consensus was no, this was a first for the former National League MVP.
In Cubs manager David Ross’s way of thinking, Bryant was in a “good head space,” and the cursing was evidence.
“That’s heavy,” Ross said of Bryant’s profanity. “Definitely mild for me.”
So Ross likes the fact his third baseman appears to be ticked off?
“For Kris Bryant to say, ‘I don’t give a (bleep),’ that’s a powerful statement,” Ross replied. “That makes me smile. Yeah, I like that. That’s a good thing. I think the more we all can block out the negative and the people that try to fill our lives with negativity in a really hard environment ... I tell him all the time he needs more ‘I don’t give a (bleep).’ And I didn’t use the word (bleep). I used something else.”
Sox manager Rick Renteria, who guided the team to the playoffs after a torturous first three years of a rebuild, can empathize with Bryant. No one has gotten more grief than Renteria, especially during the end-of-season skid that saw the Sox lose seven of their last eight games and nine of 12 to fall from the top seed in the AL.
A young team that lost its composure down the stretch must suddenly rediscover it Tuesday with the season on the line. Only three regulars _ Keuchel, catcher Yasmani Grandal and struggling designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion _ have any postseason experience.
“Any club that gets in, whether they have experience or not, if your players perform ...” Renteria said, adding: “The whole point is, and many people have talked about it many times, it’s about getting in. Because once you get in, anything can happen.”
The Sox can count on AL MVP favorite Jose Abreu to do his job, while Giolito and Keuchel have carried the rotation since the season started in late July. Rookie left-hander Garrett Crochet, whose fastball has reached 102 mph, adds another dimension to a solid bullpen.
But the Sox will need more players to step up, particularly Anderson and rookie Luis Robert, if they hope to survive past the wild-card round. And Renteria’s moves will be magnified on the big stage in his first postseason as manager.
The Cubs, meanwhile are staging a “Last Hurrah” of sorts for the core players who played a role in their drought-busting 2016 championship. With so much uncertainty next year thanks to the unappetizing combo platter of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing cost-cutting measures by Chairman Tom Ricketts, no one knows who will be back in 2021.
Adding to the degree of difficulty, several of the Cubs’ biggest stars _ Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lester _ have had seasons ranging from mediocre to just plain awful.
Yet the Cubs still won the division and are back in familiar territory, which says a lot about their makeup and ability to overcome adversity.
“We were trying to build something that could have sustained success, and we defined that by becoming regular participants in October every year or just about every year,” Cubs President Theo Epstein said. “Now this group of core players has gone out and made it to October five years out of six, with three division champions and three (league championship series), hopefully four. It’s one World Series, hopefully two, in a six-year span.
“It’s really impressive and should not be taken for granted. It starts with ownership and their commitment to winning, to make this all possible. Great leadership through the years by a number of different managers played a role, and David Ross this year in his first year, under circumstances that were really difficult and completely unforeseeable when he took the job ...
“These players take a lot of pride in winning and living up to the expectations and being the group that has really redefined this franchise in a lot of ways. I feel, and I think they feel, that it’s not done yet. There’s a great opportunity this year to add to their legacy.”
It may be now or never for the Cubs, while the Sox are in the first year of what they hope will be sustained success.
It figures to be a fascinating time for Chicago baseball fans on both sides of town, so here’s some advice: