There’s a looseness about the Cubs’ clubhouse these days.
That looseness may be telling the Washington Nationals and any other potential playoff foes this: We’ve been there, we’ve done that, we know how to win.
The Cubs got their world championship mojo back after a 43-45 start to the season leading into the All-Star break. Since then, they went 49-25 and won the National League Central by six games over the Milwaukee Brewers after trailing by 5½ at the break.
This is not to say the Cubs are going to repeat or that it’s going to be easy. If Nationals ace Max Scherzer is 100 percent after “tweaking” his hamstring over the weekend, he heads a rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
And if the Cubs can’t keep Nats leadoff man Trea Turner off the bases, it could be a quick series in Washington’s favor.
Working for the Cubs is their immense talent, their vastly improved play over the final weeks of the regular season and their winning pedigree.
A young Cubs team took the baseball world by storm in 2015 by winning 97 games in the regular season, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in the wild-card game and exorcising decades’ worth of demons by beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the division series. The team finally ran out of gas in the NL Championship Series, getting swept by the New York Mets.
The Cubs went virtually wire-to-wire last year in the regular season before surviving several tense moments in the postseason and winning the franchise’s first World Series since 1908.
With all of that out of the way, the Cubs can play it free and easy starting with Friday’s Game 1 at Nationals Park.
The Nats, on the other hand, will be under tremendous pressure to perform after handily winning the NL East one year after losing the NLDS in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Manager Dusty Baker, who has done a good job managing around myriad injuries this year, also will be under scrutiny to see whether he can get a team over the hump.
So while the Cubs might be the underdogs, even as defending world champions, they go in feeling good.
“The thing that feels different is that we know how to do this,” manager Joe Maddon said.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo sounded a similar theme.
“We’ve been there,” he said. “We’ve been there and we’ve done it. We’ve had a lot of different scenarios and series. We’ve been up games. We’ve been down games. We’ve been up in the series, down in the series.
“We’re as battle tested as you can get going into the playoffs. It’s all about if that bounce is going to go your way, if you’re going to get the big hit or make that big pitch.”
Second baseman-outfielder Ben Zobrist has been through this twice in the past two seasons, winning the 2015 World Series with the Kansas City Royals and being named Series MVP last year with the Cubs.
“As a club, we feel like all those memories are very fresh, knowing how the postseason feels,” he said. “I think everybody’s just really excited about the chance to get back into that same mode of thinking, that same adrenaline rush, and we’re just excited about the opportunity again.
“Throughout the struggling first half, we just kept coming at it. It was always tough to get (batting) cage time. You’d just see guys in there working all the time, constantly.
“No one’s resting on their laurels and thinking they have it all figured out. The other thing I think about is the ability to stay loose and have fun. That always serves you well in pressurized situations.
“I think it served us well playing Milwaukee and St. Louis this past week. Those were postseason-type situations. It will serve us well next weekend and beyond.”