Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo celebrate the Cubs’ NLDS victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015.
As the Chicago Cubs were being swept by the New York Mets last season in the National League Championship Series, Jed Hoyer was hoping the Cubs would grab momentum, get back to playing well and take a game in the series.
“We never had a lead in the series,” said Hoyer, the Cubs’ executive vice president and general manager. “They just kind of throttled us from the beginning to the end.”
Every year the Cubs make the postseason — it’s been 108 years since they last won a World Series in 1908, in case you haven’t heard — their most awful moments are revisited. From “The curse of the Billy Goat” from the 1945 World Series to the 1984 National League Division Series against the Padres to the 2003 National League Championship Series in which the Cubs were five outs from the World Series, the heartaches are replayed, rewritten and relived. Every. Single. Year.
Meanwhile, down Interstate 55 four hours south of Chicago, the St. Louis Cardinals have won 11 World Series championships and have had 28 playoff appearances since 1908. Including 2015 and beginning with their World Series win in 2011, the Cardinals were in the postseason five consecutive years.
“One of the greatest rivalries in sports: Cubs and Cardinals,” said Ryne Sandberg, the Hall of Fame second baseman who in 1984 led the Cubs to their first postseason appearance since 1945.
Every year before he left spring training, Sandberg remembers, he looked through the Cubs’ schedule for one thing: He wanted to know when the Cubs played the Cardinals.
The Texas Rangers were one strike away from winning their first World Series, and then slugger Josh Hamilton gave them renewed hope in extra innings. But the Cardinals found a way to stay alive.
Riding high after Jayson Werth’s Game 4 walk-off homer, the upstart Washington Nationals had a six-run lead in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS. Then it all came apart against a veteran Cardinals squad.
After getting through two AL powers, including the defending champion Yankees, the Indians thought destiny was on their side in 1997. But in Game 7 of the World Series, fortune found the Marlins.
“No matter what the standings were or how the teams were playing, it just had a totally different feel to it,” said Sandberg, who is now involved with the Cubs as a team ambassador. “During my years, there was an added excitement. It started with the atmosphere of the fans, even before the first pitch and all the way through the game.”
You can imagine the anticipation when the two teams met in the NLDS in 2015. The Cardinals won 100 games and finished first in the National League Central. The Cubs won 97 games, arrived in the postseason (ahead of their rebuilding schedule), won the wild-card game against the Pirates and found themselves playing in their first NLDS since 2008.
“To see the Cubs in the postseason last year was somewhat of a pleasant surprise because of all the young players that they were counting on,” Sandberg said. “The quality of play, along with the combination of excitement and having fun and playing the game the right way as a team was very evident.”
As the Cardinals and Cubs faced each other for the first time in the playoffs, a win in the National League Division Series would not only say a lot about the Cubs’ future but could also change the course of the history between the two teams.
Highlight: Cubs defeat Cardinals 3-1 in 2015 NLDS
Jed Hoyer: “Last year was interesting because … at the end of the year, we played really well against the Cardinals. So I think there was a confidence level that we could compete with them because we hadn’t earlier in the year, but we kind of turned the page in the second half of the year. … I think we had high expectations for the Cardinals series, which was really based on August and September.”
Brandon Moss (Cardinals first baseman, 2015-present): “Both teams had an incredible year. It was one of those things, I think I expected it to go to the last game. I don’t think we all expected it to go only four games. I think everybody knew it was going to be a battle. It’s two teams that are really familiar with each other. The Cubs had been playing unbelievable baseball down the stretch. The season is built for teams that get hot.”
Jon Lester (Cubs starting pitcher, 2015-present): “When you get in the postseason, everybody, their eyes are on the World Series. So I think that was our expectation going in: to get to that final spot.”
Anthony Rizzo (Cubs first baseman, 2012-present): “We were expecting to win. … Then again, it’s the playoffs, so you don’t know what to expect. We lost the first game.”
The Cardinals’ John Lackey, who signed with the Cubs before the 2016 season, shut down the Cubs on two hits in 7 1/3 innings as the Cardinals cruised to a 4-0 Game 1 win.
Randal Grichuk (Cardinals outfielder, 2014-16): “I think going into [Game 2], I felt like we had the upper hand, like we were going to take that game from them. Unfortunately, they evened the series.”
Kyle Hendricks (Cubs starting pitcher, 2014-present): “The day that I pitched was the easiest because nobody bothers you. Nobody is talking to you. I came in [for Game 2], got in my bubble and started getting into my routine, and I felt good. I felt pretty calm. You get the normal anxiety getting ready for the moment to go out there, but once you start warming up and once you take the mound, you feel the energy in the stadium.”
After one batter, it appeared that Hendricks and the Cubs would be in for another long day, as Matt Carpenter homered to lead off the game.
Kyle Hendricks: “It was a terrible pitch. I left a two-seam up in the middle. I just told myself, ‘Obviously, that was a bad pitch. If you’re going to make bad pitches, you are going to give up hits like that. So you better lock it in. Just start focusing.’ I told myself, ‘OK, let’s get the sinker down, get the changeup working.’ From there, I just really tried to focus on the bottom of the zone. I felt mentally OK, but obviously, the adrenaline is going to do something extra to you. So once I started getting the ball under the zone, it all started coming back.”
In the top of the second inning, the Cubs executed two successful safety squeeze bunts. With one out, Miguel Montero was on first, and Austin Jackson — who reached second on a throwing error by Kolten Wong — then stole third. With runners on the corners, Kyle Hendricks came to the plate.
Brandon Moss: “I was playing first base. Just because you envision something, like a bunt, you can’t sell out 100 percent for it. Even if you do, you just got to get an out somewhere.”
Kyle Hendricks: “Joe didn’t tell me before I went on deck or when I went up to the plate. But I knew the situation because we did [a squeeze play] earlier in the year. And knowing Joe and all the things he tries to do and me being a pitcher, I thought that was probably going to be the situation. Taking the plate, I looked for the signs. He puts it on. All our guys did that all year long, and teams found it pretty hard to defend. … I got a good fastball in the zone, and I just tried to place the bunt down.”
Randal Grichuk: “I was really expecting it. Knowing Maddon over there, he pulls out all the tricks.”
Brandon Moss: “That was the thing, when they were laying down some of the bunts, Addison Russell laid down one too. Even if the run scores, we didn’t get any outs and allowed things to continue. You know, in a postseason game, every run is so important. If you allow teams to keep adding on and adding on, you put yourself out of that game.”
Jason Heyward (Cardinals outfielder, 2015; Cubs outfielder, 2016): “I feel like it is something that can be tough to defend. Any time you get a runner on third with less than two outs, it could be the bottom of their order, but whatever it is, you just never know if somebody is going to squeeze. At the same time, whether you know it or not, you have to make a pitch to the plate. If you execute it correctly on the offensive side, there is not a whole lot you can do defensively. It’s just one of those things you have to tip your cap to.”
After two errors, a single and a Jorge Soler two-run homer, the Cubs were up 5-1. They went on to win Game 2 6-3 and tie the series at one game apiece.
Randal Grichuk: “It was more of a shock losing that game. Being at home too. We liked our odds to win that game.”
Brandon Moss: “They came out and took [Game 2] here. That really gave them an advantage going back to Wrigley.”
The Cubs won Game 3 8-6, clobbering six homers in the process. With a 2-1 series lead, the Cubs had a chance to eliminate their hated rivals and NL Central champs at Wrigley Field and advance to the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2003.
Kris Bryant (Cubs third baseman, 2015-present): “Being at the fourth game, you know there is a chance at the fifth game. So there is the stress and pressure and all that, but not as much as a do-or-die game. I just remember the atmosphere, especially being at home. It was a lot of fun. The white towels waving, the crowd was loud. It’s never over until it’s over — especially playing the Cardinals. The year they had last year, they had 100 wins. It made for some really great baseball, that’s for sure.”
Anthony Rizzo: “There wasn’t one moment [where we thought we’d win the series] because their organization is built to never give up. We’ve seen them come back on us many times. Until that last out was made and we struck out [Steven] Piscotty, that is when we all celebrated and went crazy.”
Brandon Moss: “In the postseason, it’s always disappointing when you go home because it’s always so abrupt. But at the same time, you know that’s always a possibility because every team deserves to be there, and every team is so good.”
Anthony Rizzo: “It was a lot of fun, celebrating with the guys to clinch at home, which we’ve never done ever. Even playing the Cardinals in the playoffs, we’ve never done it. So it was big, it was a big moment for us that I will always cherish.”
Kyle Hendricks: “They’ve been the team in this division for so long. We used to always come in here, and when I came in here in 2014, they would take it to us. That wasn’t the best feeling. They are the team that you are always trying to go get, and eventually you do accomplish it, and you overtake them. It’s a good feeling.”
Brandon Moss: “When I had been in the postseason before, it was always with the A’s versus the Tigers. There wasn’t really a rivalry. With the [Cardinals and Cubs], there was so much energy. It was so much fun. They came out, and they beat us. It stinks, and you go home, and you feel bad about it. You get that sick feeling inside, but at the same time, there is no one play where you look back and you say, ‘That cost us the series.’ A lot of people spend their whole career, and they don’t get to play in a postseason game. To be able to do it with the rivalry like it was last year is something I’ll always remember.”
Jon Lester: “We beat the Pirates, which was another one of our rivals, then you beat the Cardinals to move on, and it’s like, ‘Wow, we are good.’ We are a really good group, and we’ve done something that we didn’t actually expect to do. We talked a lot about it, going in and saying we want to win a World Series. But to get to that point and beat a guy like Lackey in Game 4 — and to do it at Wrigley — that was a huge, huge thing.”
John Mozeliak (Cardinals senior vice president and general manager): “When a season ends [without a championship], it typically ends in disappointment, regardless of who you lose to. Last year was no different. We won 100 games but lost in the first round. We were disappointed on the series but proud of our season.”
Kris Bryant: “Any time you get together and have a dog pile celebration, you remember those. I think that was our third one of the year because we celebrated getting in the playoffs, celebrated the wild card and then the [NLDS win]. That was probably the best one out of all of them. That is something we remember right now, going into October. We want to do that again.”
Jed Hoyer (Cubs executive vice president and general manager): “There was definitely a sense of gratification. It’s a great organization. They’re good every year. From the way the season started, to win the one-win playoff to get to the NLDS and play really well, and to have those great moments at home. It was that moment where it’s like, we are not a rebuilding team anymore. We’re here. We beat the Cardinals in the playoffs.
Heartache: Swept by Mets in 2015 National League Championship Series
Kyle Hendricks: “We were so hot. We were riding high after beating the Cardinals. We had a lot of confidence. [Playing the Mets in the NLCS] was like we ran into a bus. Their starting rotation dominated, to say the least. Myself, I didn’t perform that great in that series. I think I only went four innings and gave up two runs in my start there.”
Noah Syndergaard was part of the Mets pitching staff that dominated the Cubs. He fanned nine Cubs in 5 2/3 innings in Game 2 of the 2015 NLCS. Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports
Jed Hoyer: “The whole series is like a giant, negative blur in my mind because really from the first inning of the first game, they sort of took it to us. Daniel Murphy hit a homer against Jon [Lester] in the first inning. We had said going into the series he was red hot. We did a really poor job as a collective not letting him beat us. He continually had good at-bats against us in big spots.”
Jon Lester: “He hits the home run in the first, so now all the momentum is on their side. [They’ve] got [Matt] Harvey on the mound. The stadium is going crazy. That’s a hard thing to come back from. Then he continued to beat us the rest of the series.”
Addison Reed (Mets pitcher, 2015-present): Every time [Daniel Murphy] came up to the plate, you felt like not only was he going to get a hit but he was going to get a home run. We had that feeling. The pitcher definitely wasn’t feeling comfortable out there, throwing out there against him. In all my years of watching baseball, I think I can speak for everybody when they say they’ve never seen anything like that. That was unbelievable and something special to see.”
Kyle Hendricks: “He was unbelievable. He was just in one of those zones. Kind of any pitch you threw him close to the zone, he was crushing.”
Michael Conforto (Mets outfielder, 2015-present): “You just had a feeling that something good was going to happen. [Murphy] was seeing it so well. He put us on his back.”
Jed Hoyer: “I thought their pitchers did an unbelievable job. We never had a lead in the series. They just kind of throttled us from the beginning to the end. I kept hoping the whole series that we would have a moment, grab momentum and that would get us back to playing well. To their credit, they never let us have that moment.”
Joe Maddon (Cubs manager, 2015-present): “You would hope to not run into that same method of pitching among the entire group. … You run into hot pitching like that, there is not a whole lot you can do about it.”
Jon Lester: “Their pitching staff was unbelievable the whole series. Sometimes you tip your hat. We didn’t beat ourselves. We weren’t throwing the ball all over place and doing anything stupid.”
Anthony Rizzo: “We had a great year. We obviously fell short. That’s what happens in the playoffs. You are going to run into good pitching. You have to be ready for it.”
Kyle Hendricks: “It was such a tough series for us. At the end of the day, I think all of us young guys, we learned a lot from that too. We learned a lot from the win, but you’ve got to learn a lot from the loss too.”
Michael Conforto: “It was intense. It was crazy. It was an atmosphere I’ll remember for a long time. The passion that those fans have [in Chicago], it’s similar to here.”
Kris Bryant: “That was a tough one, especially to come off such a high moment, beating the Cardinals. We win the division series and then get our butts whipped. That wasn’t fun at all. But they played us unbelievably well. … It was kind of a bitter taste in our mouth. I think it explains a lot of our motivation this year.”
Jon Lester: “We all know how crazy it is going to be when we win a World Series, and I don’t like to say if it is going to happen because it’s just a matter of time. I feel like this group — that is no disrespect to any other team — but with this young group, we’re going to be set up for a long time. We just need one ball to bounce our way at the right time, and we’ve got a really good chance.”
— ESPN.com Mets reporter Adam Rubin and ESPN Stats & Information writer Mark Simon contributed to this report