CHICAGO – One young Cubs pitcher sat in the interview room and calmly answered questions about his postseason performance.
Another young Cubs pitcher stood at his locker and calmly answered questions about his postseason performance.
One was reliving a satisfying victory, the other a heartbreaking home run.
There was little difference in their demeanors.
Kyle Hendricks was the winner in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals.
Carl Edwards Jr. blew a save by giving up a booming home run to Bryce Harper in Game 2. That tied the score, and a few minutes later, Mike Montgomery gave up a three-run shot to Ryan Zimmerman to put the Nationals ahead for good.
The Cubs are in their third straight postseason, and during each one, they’ve fielded a large number of young players.
The one common trait these young players share – whether drafted or signed by the Cubs or acquired from other organizations – is an unflappable nature. They don’t seem to get rattled when things go poorly or get overly amped when victory is secured.
“Certainly, we look for guys who can handle adversity,” team president Theo Epstein said. “That’s a big part of that, the scouting process, because baseball is a game of failure, inherent in it. But there’s no substitute for experience. You look at ’15, we had some great moments – the wild-card game, the division series – but the championship series (a sweep at the hands of the Mets) was a humbling experience. We learned some of the adjustments you have to make against dominant postseason pitching in order to wait them out and then survive.”
For contrast, Epstein cited Game 1 of this year’s NLDS, when his team was being stymied by Stephen Strasburg before capitalizing on an error and winning the game.
“If those five innings had taken place in ’15 or in, say, Game 1 of the ’16 division series, the [narrative] would have been different. It would have been, ‘Oh, here we go again, can’t hit good pitching, need more contact. Instead, our guys were buoyed up by Kyle (Hendricks) matching him goose egg for goose egg and knew that Strasburg would have to get us out 27 times. It isn’t easy to do. They waited for the slightest opening and took advantage of it.”
The Cubs obtained Edwards and Hendricks in separate trades with the Texas Rangers. They got Addison Russell from Oakland and Anthony Rizzo from San Diego (Rizzo was drafted by the current Cubs management team when it was in Boston).
The Cubs made Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ recent first-round draft picks. Each of these players has enjoyed big moments, either in the regular season, playoffs or both.
By drafting high in the early years of their rebuilding process, the Cubs were able to narrow their focus on a few players and get to know them as players and as people.
“Character and makeup are things we spend an inordinate amount of time on in the amateur draft and on the international side, as well,” said Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ scouting and player-development chief. “It’s also the hardest thing that we do. We do as much work-up as we can in talking to their coaches, talking to other teammates.
“I think we’re just really fortunate that the Kris Bryants, the Kyle Schwarbers, the Ian Happs, some of these guys who have come up, that where we were selecting in the draft, it really allowed us to zero in on two or three players and do an extra amount of work on them because when you pick a little deeper, as much as you always want to get as deep on all the players you’re selecting, the reality of it is we’re the only sport that drafts during the season.”
Is there a way to predict player success or failure under pressure?
“You definitely try to see them facing the best competition, whether it’s with their season on the line or in bigger games of the year,” McLeod said. “Obviously, when you’re dealing with college guys – Kris Bryant playing at a bigger D-I school. The same with Ian Happ. You watch, ‘How did they perform with Team USA? How did they hit with games on the line? What kind of leadership traits did they show?’
“We were able to meet with guys like Kris and Kyle and Ian and say, ‘If these were our first picks in this market with the attention they’re going to get, with what our expectations are going to be, do we think they’re wired correctly to handle that and really thrive and embrace it?’ We felt all those guys were. Knock on wood, so far it’s played out that way.”
Here’s the scary part for other teams. Regardless of how this postseason turns out for the Cubs, they should be in position to get back to the playoffs for the foreseeable future.
And as young as these players are, they already have a ton of playoff experience.
“I think there’s a biological age, and then there’s a baseball postseason experience age,” Epstein said. “Our guys have already played more postseason games than most people in Cubs history. They’re really seasoned. They thrive on the adrenaline. And they don’t back down when their backs are against the wall. So I think they’ve got a lot going for them.”
That has made a happy man of manager Joe Maddon, who has these young veterans for several more years.
“I know we have a nice group and we’ve done well, but these guys are going to keep getting better,” he said. “With good health, we’re going to keep getting better because they are humble people, and they don’t take anything for granted, and they’re good. So I think you’re going to see continual rise.
“Even last year, going the wire-to-wire thing where everybody was picking us from the beginning, do you realize how inexperienced this group is? I guess youth and inexperience are synonymous terms. Listen, when you look out on the field, like [Friday night’s Game 1] for instance, the infield: (Willson) Contreras, Russell, Bryant, Baez, Rizzo. Rizzo’s the old man. And even Kyle (Hendricks), Kyle’s among that group, too. We have Schwarber, Heyward and [Ben Zobrist]. Zo’s the old man. But otherwise, even our old guys are young, to quote Yogi (Berra).”