Shades of 2016? The Cubs’ winning ways are stirring up some nostalgia
Watching the Cubs churn out quality performance after quality performance this month, a realization started to form in my mind.
It was faint at first and easy to push aside.
But with each passing win or hard-fought loss, the whisper turned into a bonafide thought.
This recent stretch of Cubs baseball has continually reminded me of 2016…
It’s not just because the Cubs accomplished something Thursday afternoon that they had not pulled off since 2016 — sweeping the Pirates in Pittsburgh (last done May 2-4 of that fateful summer).
It’s the all-around quality of play from David Ross’ bunch. And more importantly — the consistency.
“We’re playing with an edge,” Ross said after Thursday’s win.
It’s also the fun factor, like Javy Báez’s baserunning play and Anthony Rizzo’s reaction in the dugout.
Ryan Tepera — who has pitched out of two bases-loaded jams this week — told Ross recently the game was becoming “fun” again for him.
It’s certainly been fun for Cubs fans watching.
With Wrigley Field expanding to 60% capacity starting Friday, that should add another level to these good vibes.
To be clear: I’m not saying this 2021 Cubs team is comparable to the 2016 roster.
There are many differences.
The 2016 unit was fresh off a trip to the NLCS and over the winter, they added Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, John Lackey and re-signed Dexter Fowler. They had clear World Series expectations and delivered on those lofty goals.
A huge reason for that was the run prevention group in 2016. The Cubs featured the reigning Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta), Jon Lester in his prime and Kyle Hendricks (who won the 2016 NL ERA crown). The position players behind them also held their own, recording arguably the greatest defensive season in baseball history.
The 2021 Cubs are still a team in transition if you zoom out and look at the big picture of how the roster takes shape over the next several years. But living in the here and now, this team currently possesses that special “it” factor that certainly harkens back to five summers ago.
The Cubs have undoubtedly had great stretches in the regular season since the 2016 championship campaign. But have they ever had a stretch quite like this?
With Thursday’s win, the Cubs are now 16-7 in May with a +36 run differential.
Since winning the World Series in 2016, the Cubs have recorded only three full calendar months where they lost fewer than 10 games. They last accomplished the feat in April 2018 (14-9).
The Cubs still have 4 games remaining in May, but even going 2-2 could solidify this month as one of the franchise’s best over the last six seasons. Their current .696 winning percentage in May would be the highest for a month since August 2016 when the Cubs went 22-6 (.786 winning percentage).
So we’re not talking about a small sample size here. This is a month’s worth of action.
In fact, throughout the entirety of May, the Cubs have not lost a game by more than a run. All 7 losses have come by a single tally and several of those have included some late rallies and 9th inning drama.
That’s something not even the 2016 Cubs accomplished. In fact, it hasn’t been done by *any* National League team since 1988:
The Cubs have now gone 23 games in a row without a loss by multiple runs, the longest streak by an NL team since the 1988 Mets did it in 24 straight games.— Jeremy Frank (@MLBRandomStats) May 27, 2021
In a lot of ways, it feels like Cubs’ identity was actualized on a Friday night in Cincinnati on the final day of April.
This team’s grit and fight was being forged prior to that night, but the 9th inning rally against the Reds bullpen was a turning point.
The Cubs were trailing 8-2 in that game and fought all the way back to put the tying run in scoring position. The Cubs plated 2 runs in the 9th inning that night and worked quality at-bats up and down the lineup before David Bote ultimately grounded out to end the game with the bases loaded.
The next day, they held on for a 3-2 victory and began the month of May with a renewed belief as a team.
“I talk a lot about confidence,” Ross said. “Once you start putting together games where you’re having success and in every game and getting hits and driving in runs and pass it on to the next guy and taking your walk. How the offense has worked and the pitching settled in and how we’re playing baseball and the success of the bullpen, it feels like all facets have gotten better and it just breeds confidence.
“You feel like you’re never out of the game. You feel like you got a chance to come back, you continue to fight, continue to have your at-bat, waiting for that moment when you’re down that somebody gets on and you pop one and you’re right back in the game. Or have the confidence when you do have the lead that we trust in the guys behind you in the bullpen and your defense.
“The more you’re able to build that confidence and have that success, it just breeds an identity of we’re a really good team and have a chance to win every night.”
That’s the perfect explanation of why the last month has felt so much like 2016. The Cubs are carrying that confidence and belief into every game.
Defending world champions at Wrigley for a doubleheader with a pair of former Cy Young winners on the mound? No problem. Lost 3 straight close games? All good. Watch as key player after key player heads to the IL? Next man up.
Even watching from afar, it feels like this team is never out of a game right now and it’s felt that way for a while.
“We’ve got a lot of ways to beat teams and we showed that tonight,” Arrieta said Tuesday night after the series opener with the Pirates.
One night, it’s the bullpen picking up the starters. Another day, it’s a gem from the rotation. The next day, it’s the defense turning double plays and making diving stops.
All along, the offense has been consistently grinding out at-bats and wearing the opposing pitchers down. This lineup has made a lot more contact over the last five weeks, to the point where they won back-to-back games against the Pirates at Wrigley Field early in the month without recording an extra-base hit.
Confidence, belief, edge, “it” factor, identity — those words and phrases all work to sum up what we’ve seen from this Cubs team over the last month.
Another word that fits: Intent.
“Things just weren’t going the way we wanted to early,” Hendricks said. “Now we’ve been winning more ballgames but just the intent pitch-to-pitch, top-to-bottom of the roster. Just like you saw [Thursday] — jumping out to a lead, adding on. It’s just that relentless pursuit and for a couple weeks now, it’s been really fun to watch.”
The trick will obviously be carrying that same level of intent and quality of play throughout the remaining four months of the season.
But Hendricks is absolutely right about one thing: It has been fun to watch the Cubs play baseball lately.