Inexperience At Its Best….and Its Worst: The Cubs Down the Stretch

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The perfect example of the culture change in Chicago came on a Monday evening.  The Cubs gave up their three run lead to fall behind the Rockies one run, 8-7 in the top of the ninth.  With Dexter Fowler on first, two outs, up came Kris Bryant to bat.  For everyone working in the ballpark, who pined for their beds after the boys in blue gave up a 3-run lead in the top of the 9th, rather than those enjoying or playing the game, there were no thoughts of a walk, single, or even double.  KB’s at-bat was either going to be tallied as a K or a HR.  When Axford dealt a poorly placed breaking ball for his second pitch to Bryant, the recently struggling rookie third basemen teed off.  His shot to just right of center led to a lemon lime gatorade bath (which one can be nearly sure he much preferred over fellow Vegas native and blossoming talent, Bryce Harper’s chocolate sauce fate).

That’s what youth is, that’s what the Cubs are and are going to be in the playoffs.  Either a strikeout or a home run in the bottom of the ninth, two outs, winning run at the plate.  The Cubs have the potential to knock this roster experiment out of the park or watch it pass by and try again, next game, next season.  

Inexperience is not an excuse.  Or rather,  it’s the wrong articulation. “Inexperience” is a way of explaining a youthful group’s inability to perform in higher pressure situations.

Kris Bryant hasn’t been in high pressure situations before, at least not on this stage.  Kyle Schwarber is good, but he’s never felt this kind of pressure before.  Russell is a fielding maven and has been getting significantly better in his low pressure slot at the plate, but he has never been on the big stage either. Soler’s new to the scene. Rizzo, he’s killing it but he’s never been to the playoffs, which have a totally different feel.  Neither have Castro or Arrieta.  There are veterans there, who have been on that stage, including Lester, Ross, Motte, and Heron. There are veteran journeymen like Montero, Coghlan, Denorfia, Fowler, and Hammel. The vets, in theory, bolster the youthful squad with “experience” and “wisdom.”  In reality though, it all comes down to the ability to perform.  

Rookies and prospects are given the benefit of the doubt when they fail in new, big-time scenarios, veterans choke.  The point is, anyone can fail or succeed in such scenarios.  While experience may be an asset for veterans in those situations, at the same time, young players go to the plate with a sense of not knowing any better. They get behind the plate and just battle or in the field and just play. They hear things about the pressure or the situation or the stage but don’t really know what to do with it and so just go out and do what they do. Either way, its about either using the pressure to one’s advantage or not letting it get to them in order to perform.  Thus, if the Cubs fail in this postseason, it won’t be termed as that, it will be rather that something got in the way of their success.  The club is too young to have failed, they just don’t have all the pieces in play yet.  

Furthermore, with the exodus of the era of players highlighted by names like Derek Jeter, baseball in general, this season, with the exceptions of AJ Burnett, pre-injury, Mark Buehrle, Alex Rodriguez, and Albert Pujols, is more focused on the youth. Almost every other big name is 25 years old or younger.  Joc Pederson, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, Manny Machado, Sonny Gray, Noah Syndergaard, Gerrit Cole, and those like them.  In a period where baseball loves young stars, it appears that the Cubs may be both born under and uplifted by a constellation of them.  

From their young Starlins and starlets, the Cubs have their ups like Kyle Schwarber hitting both game tying and eventual game winning home runs in his hometown of Cincinnati within his first couple days up in the bigs.  Anthony Rizzo, after weathering a rough patch, blasts home runs in four consecutive games or climbing the biggest roll of tinfoil ever made, over a wall and making arguably the best defensive play to grace SCTop10 all season long.  Starlin Castro walking off with a hit at home in extras on back to back nights in Ohio after being demoted to the 7-hole.  Addison Russell compiling a highlight reel of web gems at short while also boosting his batting average in the second half. There’s a 1.02 combined ERA in 10 consecutive starts from Jake Arrieta who is putting up video game numbers as of late.  

And they also have their lows.  Starlin Castro is seriously struggling at the plate, so much so that he has been demoted to the bench, batting sub .240 for the majority of the season.  Kris Bryant, appearing to fall back into habits of his first game up in the majors, is swinging at a lot, a lot of pitches he shouldn’t.  The club, getting swept by the league worst Phillies immediately following the All-Star Break.  They go through bouts of bad or no hitting, lackluster pitching, and unfortunate fielding.  

Joe Maddon is playing a major role, a fun uncle or cool dad figure, mentoring them through their ups and downs, always cool, calm, collected, and focusing on the positives or constructively assessing the areas for improvement.  Pensive, laid-back, and detail-oriented, Maddon plays a tremendous role in their previous and potential success.  

In addition to the somewhat surprising fact that the Cubs have the fourth best record in baseball, their ability throughout this season to come back, close, and simply not gift wrap wins to other teams has been tremendous compared to years past. They lead the league in one-run decisions and walk-off wins. But beyond that, to put it in a metric that Chicagoans can better understand: fewer people, much fewer people leave when the score is 3-2, 6-5,  9-8 or even 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth, god forbid. It’s finally exciting baseball in the Cubbie blue pinstripes.  

What will surely be determined either down the stretch or in the playoffs, is whether or not the Cubs will realize their potential or learn from their insufficiencies.  And essentially, what will eventually lead to the possible faltering of the Cubs is their inability to be consistently good.  They might have great moments and they might have bad moments but being consistently good may be the issue.  They have the talent to stick with anybody through 8 ½ innings, but down the stretch, when it counts, really counts, at the bottom of the ninth with two outs, for the win, will they belt a home run or just strike out?