AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO — No matter how the playoffs turn out for the Chicago Cubs, manager Joe Maddon wanted to know one thing.
“How can you possibly be disappointed with anything our players have done this year?” he wondered.
The emergence of several young prospects helped elevate the Cubs to their first postseason appearance in seven years despite finishing third in their division. They visit Pittsburgh on Wednesday night for a matchup of two of the majors’ best teams in the NL wild-card game.
“Fast forward from a year ago, we put our organization in a great position top to bottom for success,” All-Star slugger Anthony Rizzo said. “Now it is on us players to go out and repeat that success.”
Jake Arrieta gets the ball against Gerrit Cole and the Pirates, hoping his dominant run continues into the postseason. If they win, the Cubs meet St. Louis in the division series. Otherwise, it’s on to next year.
Given the youth and the strides this team made, that does not sound like a terrible proposition. But the Cubs are looking for more than just a one-game cameo in the playoffs.
“Joe said at the beginning of spring training that the hardest thing to do is crack the postseason the first time,” Rizzo said. “Then you learn how to win. I think this organization has really grown, especially since I’ve been here.”
The Cubs went from winning 73 games to finishing with the third-best record in baseball at 97-65.
They are in the postseason for the first time since the 2007 and 2008 teams won the NL Central. And if they beat Pittsburgh, the Cubs will do something they have not done since Game 4 of the 2003 NL championship series — win a playoff game. No need to recount what happened in that series against the Florida Marlins. Or that the Cubs last won the World Series in 1908.
Chicago comes in as arguably the hottest team in the majors with eight straight wins and a 46-19 record since July 27. No team had as good a road record (48-33) and no pitcher won as many games as Arrieta (22).
Yet, the playoffs also are new territory for him. Same goes for rookies Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell, as well as some of the veterans in the lineup.
“Obviously the adrenaline is going to be running a little more, but I think we are ready for it,” Rizzo said.
The Cubs have been building to this moment ever since they hired president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who knows a thing or two about ending curses, and general manager Jed Hoyer in the fall of 2011.
They began restocking the farm system, loading up on prospects, and this is the payoff. Not that it was an easy process.
The overhaul tested fans’ patience, and it showed at the box office. Attendance dipped every year from 3,300,200 in 2008 to 2,642,682 in 2013. There was a slight increase in 2014 (2,652,113) followed by a big jump this year (2,959,812).
Outside Wrigley Field on Monday afternoon, the famed marquee had the usual ads. A few fans stopped to take pictures, as usual.
But make no mistake there is a noticeable buzz around the old ballpark. It has been building since last season when the team started to call up some of its touted prospects.
It got kicked up another notch in the offseason when the Cubs brought in Maddon and Jon Lester, signaling they felt they were ready to contend. And it reached another level this season.
There is a belief that the Cubs are built to last, that this is not just a short window of contention. Whether this ultimately leads to that elusive championship at some point is obviously to be determined.
This much is certain. A big moment arrives Wednesday.
“Everyone feels really good going into there and hopefully get past that one and get to a full series,” pitcher Dan Haren said. “The team’s been amazing with 97 wins. I think we like our chances.”