WASHINGTON -- The final day of the first half, July 9, brought a nine-inning kick to the teeth for the Cubs and the finishing touch of a three-month-long reminder: As hard as it is to win it all, doing it again is even more difficult.
Jon Lester didn't make it out of the first inning as the Pirates pounded the Cubs, 14-3, that Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The defending champions fell to 43-45, 5 1/2 games behind the division-leading Brewers. They were repeatedly knocked down, but never out.
But here they are, fresh off a 49-25 romp through the second half, back in the postseason and ready to begin the seldom-traveled journey to a repeat tonight against the Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series presented by T-Mobile.
No franchise is more familiar with the challenge of becoming a champion. The Cubs spent 108 seasons waiting for what happened last year. They believe the experience they gained during that championship run, and the adversity they overcame this season, helped prepare them for this moment.
"We've been through a lot of different scenarios. Not much is going to be able to hit us in the face and us just go get knocked out," Anthony Rizzo said. "We're going to be able to get back up and keep moving forward. We know that."
But consider the rarity of the repeat the Cubs are seeking.
The Yankees won three World Series in a row from 1998-2000. Since their dynasty ended with a loss in the 2001 Fall Classic, only one reigning World Series champion has even returned to the World Series: the 2009 Phillies. The 1975-76 Reds were the last National League team to repeat.
The Cubs have already snapped a four-year drought in which the defending World Series champion didn't even reach the following postseason. This is the first time since 2002 that both defending pennant winners won their respective divisions the following year.
The Giants are perhaps the best recent example of how hard it is to reel off consecutive championships. They won it all every other season from 2010-14, didn't make the postseason in the years in between, and the Cubs ended San Francisco's even-year "dynasty" last October.
The Cubs spent three months treading water this season. It wasn't like last year, when they cruised to 103 wins and never woke up with a sub-.500 record, when the division title was never in doubt, when they almost seemed destined for their eventual seven-game triumph over the Indians.
"Every season's different, for sure. I guess it did give us a calming sense of understanding," Jason Heyward said. "It just allowed us to say, 'OK, let's slow things down in this moment, put this behind us and get better from it.' That's what we try to do each day, understanding there's going to be more challenges ahead."
Rizzo reflected Wednesday night on the challenges behind them. Watching the National League Wild Card Game, he thought about how, in 2015, that night in Pittsburgh felt like "the biggest thing ever."
Now? They've been there and beyond, done that and more. All that's left to do is to do it again.
"Experience at least is worth knowing what it took to do that last year. And I think coming into this postseason, we have a knowing that we didn't have last year," manager Joe Maddon said. "So I want to believe that coming into this year, we have an eagerness about us without an anxiety. I think that's what it really comes down to."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.