Work not done for playoff-bound Cubs
Players remember pain of last year's early exit from postseason
CHICAGO -- The sting of last year's quick exit in the postseason never healed for the Cubs. Ever since the final out was made last Oct. 6 at Wrigley Field, the Chicago players were motivated to get back. They had some unfinished business to attend to.
"Last year, we fell a little bit short," Chicago shortstop Ryan Theriot said. "I think we've all kind of grown a little bit. Our team has grown for sure. Hopefully, we can correct our mistakes from last year."
In 2007, the Cubs felt a sense of relief when they clinched the National League Central. After all, they were coming off a 96-loss season in 2006, there were a bunch of new faces in the clubhouse and a new manager in Lou Piniella. However, the playoffs ended abruptly as the Arizona Diamondbacks swept them in the NL Division Series.
On Saturday, the Cubs secured the Central for the second straight year with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. To a man, they said their work isn't done.
"This is part of the goal," Jim Edmonds said, "but the ultimate goal is to win a World Series, and now it's time to focus on that goal and not get too excited about what we just did."
The Cubs did something the franchise has not accomplished since 1907-08, and that is to finish first in back-to-back seasons.
"It's been a really, really nice year, and I'm proud of our team," Piniella said. "Now we can start planning for the postseason. Hopefully, we can give the fans what they want. We all know what that is."
In case you didn't know, it's to end the 100-year stretch without a World Series. Derrek Lee won a world championship in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. What's the key?
"I don't think there's any particular way," he said. "There's no magic formula. It's about being ready and playing good baseball. You have to be prepared and have to be ready to go. Last year, we got caught on our heels a little bit, and Arizona was hot. I think we'll be a little more prepared this year."
Saturday's celebration was perfectly timed. The Cubs were able to do it at Wrigley Field in front of a sellout crowd of 41,597, which pushed the home season total to a club-record 3,259,649.
"They've been behind us 100 percent from the beginning," rookie catcher Geovany Soto said. "The fans are always behind us. It's exciting to come to the ballpark and see 40,000 day in and day out.
"They believe, we believe, and we just have to go out and play hard," Soto said. "We just clinched, but we still have some baseball to play. Right now, we can celebrate."
The Cubs players did a victory lap around Wrigley and sprayed the fans with champagne. Several of the players were well prepared and wore goggles.
"I hope I can do this 20 times," Soto said. "It never gets old. It's always special."
Soto has led a charmed baseball life. This will be his second straight trip to the postseason. Reed Johnson has never gone. Mark DeRosa, who has been in the Major Leagues since 1998, will be making his fifth postseason appearance.
"To do it in this ballpark, in front of these fans, two years, back to back -- this never gets old," DeRosa said. "There's no guarantees when the season starts. I remember back in Spring Training, a bunch of teams were considered to go to the playoffs. You have to stay healthy, and we had to get it done in a tough division."
Alfonso Soriano was confident. The Cubs outfielder was wearing a flashy gold boxing-style belt around his black NL Central Champions T-shirt.
The Cubs had the perfect guy on the mound for the final out in Kerry Wood. The right-hander, the only leftover from the 1998 team that reached the postseason, picked up his 32nd save on Saturday. The closest he's gotten to the World Series was the '03 season when the Cubs were five outs away.
"We're looking at the big picture," Wood said of the somewhat subdued celebration in the Cubs' clubhouse. "It's nice to get in. We expected to be in this spot. We'll enjoy it tonight, and probably a little bit into the morning for a few of us. It's well deserved. The times we did have adversity, we bounced back. This team has great makeup."
And it may have the best chance in October.
"This is the best team I've been a part of, the deepest team I've been a part of, the best offense, and all the way through," Wood said. "We have a deep team. We have a good team. The bottom line is to stay healthy the rest of the season and get ready to go when the bell rings."
"I'd like for [Wood] to get the last out of the World Series, that would be even better," Chicago's Ryan Dempster said.
Dempster, you remember, was the guy who predicted in Spring Training that the Cubs would win it all.
"It's kind of what I believed in," he said. "I believed in the guys in here and the [front office] upstairs. We've got a long ways to go."
It would be special for Wood. He's battled enough arm injuries for an entire pitching staff and nearly ended his career last season.
"I never dreamed I'd be standing here in this position and this situation," Wood said. "I'll look back on it when it's all over. Hopefully, we have a few more 'W's' to go get."
That's the theme. The Cubs won't be content just getting to the postseason. Piniella made it clear during what he called a "nice, little, lovable meeting" in Cincinnati. It didn't exactly inspire the players, so he used the media to try to fire the guys up for the final stretch. That prompted his lecture in St. Louis on Sept. 9 when he said the team was "playing like we're waiting to get beat."
"I recognized that [the meeting in Cincinnati didn't work], and I used the media to send just a little different message," Piniella said. "I used the media. You used me all year."
It was a veteran move. Piniella will have a tougher time keeping the fans' expectations in check.
"Bobby Cox in Atlanta won 14 divisions in a row, went into the postseason 14 times with really good teams," Piniella said. "Bobby Cox is a Hall of Fame manager, and he's won one World Series. Now, what does that tell you? It's not the easiest thing in the world to do.
"That tried to be my message [before Saturday's game]," he said. "You've got to have fortune, you've got to have a little luck, you've got to stay a little healthy, you've got to have things go your way. We've got the talent here. We're a talented bunch. But, you know what? There are a lot of talented bunches that go into the postseason."
Wood likes his chances.
"We have more work to do," he said. "We want to be ready when that time comes."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.