MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Ricketts, Cubs exhale, look ahead to NLCS

Chairman confident club has what it takes to finish the job

Ricketts, Cubs exhale, look ahead to NLCS

CHICAGO -- Extraordinary moment, indeed.

That's what manager Joe Maddon called his latest adventure when he had just signed on to help Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein go in search of baseball's Holy Grail: The first World Series title for the Cubs since 1908.

"Why would you not want to accept this challenge?'' Maddon said. "In this city, in that ballpark, under these circumstances, with this talent, it's an extraordinary moment. Not just in Cub history but in baseball, today's game, this confluence of all these items coming together at the same time.''

Game Date Matchup
Gm 1 Oct. 17 NYM 4, CHC 2
Gm 2 Oct. 18 NYM 4, CHC 1
Gm 3 Oct. 20 NYM 5, CHC 2
Gm 4 Oct. 21 NYM 8, CHC 3

Give him credit. The man knows what he knows.

As the clock atop the Wrigley Field scoreboard hit 6 p.m. CT on a 58-degree Tuesday, the Cubs were on the verge of an important piece of franchise history -- their first clinching of a postseason series at the ballpark with the ivy-covered walls, which opened in 1914.

Anthony Rizzo had homered into the right-field seats in the sixth inning, giving the Cubs a lead over the Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Rookie Kyle Schwarber, the Babe Ruth replica from Middletown, Ohio, via Indiana University, followed that with a monstrous shot over the Budweiser sign that sits atop the video board in right field during the seventh.

Shop for postseason gear

The Cubs had a 6-4 lead, and needed six outs to advance to the NL Championship Series.

John Cusack, the Evanston-born actor, stood next to Ricketts in the first row of seats, behind the on-deck circle and almost close enough to Maddon to call a hit-and-run play. Ricketts crossed and uncrossed his arms but didn't look any more anxious than he had at games in 2012, when the Cubs tallied 101 losses.

Rizzo's go-ahead homer

"He was nervous, but cool,'' Cusack said. "He was cool. He was on edge but with the team. Hard-fought.''

Pedro Strop pitched a perfect eighth inning. Hector Rondon, who had given up a two-run homer to Stephen Piscotty in the ninth on Monday night, would finish the 6-4 victory, but not before Matt Carpenter's single gave Piscotty a chance to tie the score. This time around, as butterflies danced throughout Ricketts' nervous system, Rondon struck him out, finishing the Cardinals in four games.

Ricketts exhaled, then started to exchange handshakes and hugs with everyone around him. He would laugh later when told he'd been described as "nervous but cool.''

"Maybe more nervous than cool,'' Ricketts said, standing on the grass in front of the Cubs' dugout. "But obviously it's very special. To get through this series … the Cardinals are such a great organization, with decades of success. It means a lot more to beat them than it would somebody else. Obviously, the class of the league. It's good to get through this one. Now we have to go see if New York or L.A. is next. We're going to run the table. We're going to go from here.''

Yes, he said "run the table.'' Ricketts, his president of baseball operations, his general manager, manager and players all believe the team that has gone 43-18 since Aug. 6 is capable of winning the World Series.

"Two more to go through, but I really do feel like these guys are ready to keep moving,'' Ricketts said. "We're playing well, playing loose, playing focused at the right time.''

Cubs advance to NLCS

When the Cardinals beat the Cubs on Opening Night and then won eight of the first 10 games between the teams, Maddon said over and over that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.

That's what happened in the NLDS, with the Cubs roaring back from a three-hit shutout in Game 1 to win three in a row. They won Game 2 with squeeze bunts and the spirit of Don Zimmer and then blasted nine home runs in Games 3 and 4, only one by a player older than 26.

"That's a really good team we beat,'' catcher David Ross said of the Cardinals. "I mean, a really good team. One-hundred wins. That doesn't come around every year. They know how to win, and our guys never quit. Great at-bats from young guys -- Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo. … It's a different guy every night. That's a good sign of a good team.''

Statcast: Schwarber's moonshot

Ross, 38, is in the first year of a two-year contract. He's enjoyed everything he's experienced since coming to Chicago -- both the talent of his teammates and the atmosphere at Wrigley.

"The environment here has been amazing,'' Ross said. "The new scoreboard … I can't even imagine a playoff atmosphere without that scoreboard, seeing these replays over and over. It's the whole package. … It's nice for me being an older guy to think I'm part of something special that's growing. This is only going to get better. These guys are figuring out how to win. It's fun to win.''

Remember when the Cubs' sad history always seemed to be their storyline. Ricketts, Epstein and Maddon (who imported his magic act from the Rays) have changed the narrative.

The first order of business after Rondon got the 27th out Tuesday was celebrating the fact that a franchise that won only one of 14 postseason series since 1908 just stopped the Cardinals short of their fifth consecutive trip to the NLCS.

"Obviously, times weren't easy the last few years,'' said Rizzo, who has developed into an MVP candidate since being acquired in one of Epstein's first trades. "But with all the talent we had and all the talent we were building, everyone knew that the Cubs were coming, and we're here.''

Rizzo on Cubs advancing to NLCS

Both inside and outside the ballpark, Rondon's strikeout of Piscotty started a party that raged long into the night. The final out came before 7 p.m., but the celebratory scene in the infield went on until after 8 p.m., and the lights didn't dim until almost 8:30.

"This is as electric as I've ever seen Wrigley, and I've been coming here for 40 years,'' said Cusack, who grew so excited about the Cubs' young talent he purchased a suite for the 2015 season. "It's as beautiful as anything I've ever seen. It's the most beautiful vibration.''

The three best records in the Major Leagues came from the NL Central this season, and it is the third-place team, Ricketts' Cubs, that are still standing.

"We've been playing great for two months now,'' general manager Jed Hoyer said. "The Cardinals and the Pirates, they're really good teams. I think we've played really well. It's going to be a great battle for the next three, four, five years with all these teams. Today's our day.''

Imagine what it looked like through Ricketts' eyes.

This was his party as much as anyone else on the property. He had purchased the team from the Tribune Company in 2009, hired Epstein in 2011 and provided him all the resources he needed to accumulate the young talent that has been on display in a postseason run that began with a 4-0 victory over the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game.

Ricketts' rebuilding plan was a polarizing point among Cub fans, with old-school types grumbling about the losing seasons that put the team in position to draft Kris Bryant and Schwarber, among others, as well as video boards being added to a ballpark that didn't get lights until 1988. You wouldn't have blamed Ricketts if he had puffed out his chest and proclaimed himself vindicated. But that's not the sort of guy he is.

"I look around this field and I think of all the millions of people who have given so much love to this team for so many years,'' Ricketts said. "I don't care about me. I just want to pay them back.''

Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred is thrilled to have the Cubs back among baseball's strongest franchises. The sport is always best when its flagship franchises thrive.

"I was here earlier in the spring,'' Manfred said before Game 4. "It struck me as I was coming in how massive the project to re-do Wrigley really is. It's a testament to the family, the investment they've made to preserve Wrigley for the fans, because it is a huge investment. That's off the field. On the field, they had a plan. They went about it the way most baseball people think is the right way. It's been successful faster than most people thought it was going to be. They're a great and exciting club. It's really good for the game.''

Like the blast Schwarber sent toward Sheffield Avenue, it's going to take a long time for these fans to come down from having this much fun.

Manfred takes in Game 4

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.