MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Now champs, Cubs just as hungry

Talented squad has ideal mindset for defending World Series title

Now champs, Cubs just as hungry

CHICAGO -- Just like that, the Cubs are off and rolling again, as Theo Epstein sensed they might be.

"This is the lowest maintenance group I've ever been around,'' Epstein said before the Cubs raised their World Series banner on Monday night, after a two-hour rain delay that could have taken away from the evening. "They handled the target on their back last year so well. This year, they're handling the fact that we won and questions about complacency better than anyone could have imagined.''

You never just flip a switch and get out of the way with any team, in any sport. But if that was going to be true about a team, it would be one led by players like Anthony Rizzo, who battled tears throughout the emotional home opener and then deposited a 94-mph cutter from Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen into left field to clinch a 3-2 win almost four hours after he'd hoisted the 2016 World Series championship flag onto a pole built especially for the occasion.

Cubs raise World Series banner

"You don't have to do anything,'' said Epstein, in his sixth season as the Cubs' president of baseball operations. "They're so focused, so hard working. They understand they need to approach this with all the intensity of last year if they want to get back to a point where they can enjoy that special feeling at the end of the year again. It's been a total non-issue. When the first pitch is thrown, they're locked in. I know they will enjoy the pregame tonight and I also know they'll be locked in by the first pitch.''

In the third season under Joe Maddon, the Cubs have grown into the team that every manager of every team dreams about. They are the most talented team in their league, and they also have the most fun playing together.

That's how you get blown away by a talented pitcher like the Cardinals' Carlos Martinez on Opening Night and look up a week later to see a 5-2 record.

The moment of the season so far came late last Thursday in St. Louis, when teammates streamed by Kyle Schwarber's cubicle at Miller Park to congratulate him for making it through three games.

Schwarber has famously gone down with a knee injury on April 7 last season, only to return with a vengeance for Game 1 of the World Series in Cleveland. So you've got to love the gallows humor, which few do better than baseball players.

It crushed Schwarber to be sidelined while rehabbing the knee he tore up in a collision with center fielder Dexter Fowler. He's an unusually intelligent hitter, with the best batting eye on the team. That says a lot when you have reigning National League Most Valuable Player Award winner Kris Bryant and Rizzo hitting behind you.

Built like a linebacker or an offensive tackle, anything but a wide receiver, Schwarber has taken over the leadoff spot from Fowler, who signed with the Cardinals this offseason. Schwarber has a .382 on-base percentage and is on target to score 116 runs.

Schwarber's solo home run

The Dodgers demonstrated their respect by throwing Schwarber only five strikes among 17 pitches in the Cubs' victory. He flied out in the first inning but then drew three consecutive walks off starter Alex Wood and reliever Grant Dayton.

Twice the left-handed-hitting left fielder worked walks, remaining selfless even though there were runners in scoring position and Schwarber has homered in two of his past four games.

"Against a lefty, too, which was kind of nice,'' Maddon said. "Schwarbs worked really good at-bats to set the whole thing up. I know he does not want to be platooned and that's his method of never caving in. Great at-bats on his part.''

Rizzo didn't have a lefty-lefty matchup in the bottom of the ninth inning. But he was facing Jansen, who is on the short list of baseball's best closers.

The Cubs were one out away from bringing in reliever Mike Montgomery to pitch the 10th inning when Rizzo came to the plate, but he sent a joyous crowd home by doing what the best hitters have done against the best pitchers since 1908, when the Cubs won their last championship.

"Choke up and put the bat on the ball,'' Rizzo said.

Rizzo on walk-off single

Maddon was impressed, as he has been since Spring Training 2015, when he began to fully appreciate the potential powerhouse he'd left Tampa Bay to manage.

"Anthony really worked a veteran, mature at-bat there against Jansen,'' Maddon said. "If you just really attempt to do what you normally do against that fellow, he's going to eat you alive.''

Rizzo can be stoic around reporters, but he didn't hide the emotion and pride he carried on being selected as the one to raise the championship banner and then carry the Commissioner's Trophy onto the field on the return trip from the center-field bleachers.

Rizzo marvels about what the championship has brought Cubs' fans.

"We had this whole offseason to dissect it and realize what it meant to some people,'' Rizzo said. "For them to enjoy that, for us to enjoy it was really cool. It's our first time back, and to be [able to appreciate] that was really special. We're the only people alive that have done that.''

Cubs celebrate World Series win

As a bonus, the rain delay allowed the Cubs to watch former teammate David Ross compete on "Dancing With the Stars," which was shown live on the video board. Ross performed to wild applause, and judge Julianne Hough was booed viciously when she dared say Ross was "a little squatty, a little skippety'' in his Viennese Waltz. Rizzo, Ross and 2016 teammates like Bryant, Fowler, Schwarber, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Ben Zobrist, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras have quickly become Chicago legends. If it has gone to their heads, they've kept this secret to themselves.

Because they've remained so level-headed, so grounded, they are a team that has a chance to hold many more celebrations in their time together. They'll be handed their World Series rings on Wednesday night, and then the fun begins again.

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