It's a gorgeous night at a rockin' Wrigley Field. Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta is slicing up the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cubs batters are doing their jobs. Ben Zobrist delivers a clutch home run. Jason Heyward gets two hits and drives in a run and lovable Anthony Rizzo smacks the ball all over the place. Kris Bryant and Javier Baez make slick fielding plays. The Cubs' closer barely takes the mound in the ninth inning, and my wife already is talking about how the victory anthem of "Go, Cubs, Go" will start playing the second the Cubs record that third out. And she is right.
It sure does feel like 2016.
The biggest difference is that instead of fireball closer Aroldis Chapman strutting to the mound to the blazing guitar riff from Libertyville's Tom Morello in the pounding "Wake Up," by Rage Against the Machine, Cubs closer Wade Davis just sort of appears on the mound while a 16-year-old ditty from Dr. Dre plays unobtrusively in the background. With his 27th save in 27 opportunities, Davis quietly sets the Cubs' record for most consecutive saves.
The 2017 Cubs (except maybe on the charity front) are quieter than the 2016 Cubs. Gone is all that noise about how the Cubs could end 108 years of goats and black cats, and curses and jinxes, and foul balls and Cubbie occurences. While the 2016 Cubs boasted the entire starting infield for the 2016 All-Star Game, pitchers Arrieta and Jon Lester and outfielder Dexter Fowler, the 2017 Cubs sent only Davis. Bryant won't win the National League MVP award this year, but he's having a productive season. Rizzo won't win it either, but he deserves to be in the discussion. Pitcher Kyle Hendricks won't turn in the lowest earned run average in baseball, but he's pitched more like his 2016 self since recovering from an injury.
While I loved Fowler playing center field for the Cubs in 2016, current Cubs center fielder Jon Jay, with help from occasional center fielders Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and Heyward, have put up similar numbers. As much as fans loved backup catcher David Ross and cheered clutch hits by fellow backup catcher Miguel Montero in 2016, the Cubs are getting better production this year from rising star Willson Contreras and new additions Alex Avila and Rene Rivera, who are holding down the spot until Contreras returns from his hamstring injury.
The Cubs clearly have all the ingredients needed to win the World Series again. As long as they make the playoffs, September doesn't even matter. To see how this is done, we need to study our old nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals.
Google "worst team to win a World Series," and the 2006 Cardinals pop up on your screen. That team finished the regular season with a mediocre record of 83-78. The Cardinals were 71-61 on Aug. 31. Our 2016 Cubs were 71-60 going into their game against the Pirates Wednesday.
The 2006 Cardinals went 12-16 in September, lost their last game of the season on Oct. 1 and backed into the division title when second-place Houston lost its last game.
Once those Cardinals limped into the playoffs, their pitchers found some magic. In the National League championship series, pitcher Jeff Suppan, who started the year as the Cardinals' fourth starter, was awarded the MVP. In the World Series, the surging Cardinals beat the favored Detroit Tigers four games to one.
Rookie pitcher Anthony Reyes, who won five games all season for St. Louis, pitched a gem in winning the opening game of the Series. Diminutive 5-foot-6-inch shortstop David Eckstein drove in four runs while hitting .364 to win the MVP honors. The Cardinals' pitching staff compiled a 2.05 earned run average.
That's a blueprint for the way the Cubs, who have a better roster than those 2006 Cardinals, could win the 2017 championship. The pitchers rediscover their 2016 form. The Cubs best hitters perform the way they should, and a player under the radar (Almora, Tommy LaStella, a rehabbed Contreras or Addison Russell, or maybe even Ben Zobrist again) gets hot and earns World Series MVP honors.
In the meantime, Wrigley Field remains a magical place to watch a baseball game.