Takeaways from the Opening Series

So that was a fun way to open 2016.

Given all the hype and expectation heading into this season, it would have been hard for the Cubs to look impressive. But that’s exactly what they did in outscoring the Angels 15-1 over the course of two games in Anaheim. The weather was beautiful and the Cubs’ performance made the late start times much easier for folks back in the Midwest to stomach.

My head’s still spinning a bit from jet lag, so I’ll try to limit my thoughts in order to keep them from tailing off into nonsense — well, more nonsense than usual.

The lineup is legit

Okay, this isn’t a novel concept. But would you have believed it if I’d told you that the Cubs would collect 20 hits in the series but that none would come from Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, or Kyle Schwarber? The former two players did reach base via walk on Monday (Bryant actually drew two), but neither of the them really factored heavily into the offensive output.

That’s not meant as a slight to any of those sophomores, it’s actually a testament to how strong the overall order is. Not only do the Cubs not need to rely on contributions from any individual, or even a trio of them, but the team can survive a game or series or stretch in which more than a couple players don’t perform well. There are no holes here, no room for an opposing pitcher to breathe.

Lester looks loose

Speaking of a pitcher getting the chance to breathe, Jon Lester really seems more at ease out on the mound. Despite some persistent online claims of mediocrity, the lefty was very good last season. While I don’t agree with those who’ve marginalized what was actually one of the best seasons by a Cubs pitcher in the last 20 years or so, I can see how his somewhat inconsistent early performances created doubt.

After watching Lester hit a home run and strike out 10 during his last spring outing against the Rockies, I could tell there was something a little different about him heading into his second campaign in Chicago. Here’s what I wrote last week:

If I were someone who put stock in the psychological of athletic performance, I’d probably say he feels more comfortable now. You can imagine how a guy might press a little in his first season under his first giant free agent contract, particularly when he’s handed the ball on Opening Day and fitted with a bespoke jersey tailored with a lead lining to ward off the various curses and evil spirits.

Freed from the weight of expectation by the emergence of various other stars around him, I’d imagine Lester feels more free to use his left arm to pitch rather than shoulder the load. Call me a homer, but I think we’re going to see some really great things from him this season.

The veteran pitcher confirmed my suspicions after Tuesday’s game in Anaheim in which he allowed just a single run over 7 innings of 4-hit ball.

“Physically, mentally, I’m light years ahead of where I was last year at this point,” Lester admitted. “Last year was so different. There was a lot of hype involved around myself and a lot of expectations for myself and you try to go out there for the first start and live up to those expectations all at once as opposed to letting the season play out and go through your 32 starts and see where you’re at at the end.”

I’m very much looking forward to seeing what John Lackey, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks can do, but the duo at the top of the rotation looks like they’ll be every bit as good as last season.

Patiently aggressive approach pays off

If you were to catalog all the words used to describe Joe Maddon, static would probably not make the list. We’re all well aware of his affinity for flexibility in the field and the lineup, but the Cubs skipper also likes to change up his team’s approach. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that he’s just not tethered to the book when it comes to what to do in given situations.

Consider the way the Cubs attacked Angels pitching Monday and Tuesday. They took sort of a rope-a-dope approach with Opening Day starter Garrett Richards, who lasted only 5 innings. Though they registered a lone extra-base hit (leadoff double by Dexter Fowler) against the Angels ace, the Cubs forced him to throw 97 pitches and were then able to bust the game open against the bullpen. The Cubs drew 3 walks from Richards and took 7 free passes in total on Monday.

Tuesday’s game saw the Cubs take a more aggressive Mike Tyson-y strategy against lefty Andrew Heaney, who needed only 87 throws to get through 6 innings. Like a perfectly-timed commute, the visiting hitters saw nothing but green lights all night. In fact, they drew no walks in the second game and all 6 RBI came in no-strike counts. Matt Szczur homered on the first pitch he saw, Jason Heyward pushed a run across with a 2-0 groundout, and Anthony Rizzo homered in the same count to put the Cubs up 4-0 in the 3rd.

Even after Heaney had exited the game the Cubs stayed aggressive. Dexter Fowler capped the scoring with a two-run tomahawk job on a 3-0 count in the 7th.

Despite the small sample size, we got a really good at exactly what the Cubs are going to be able to do throughout the season. They can sentence you to death by a thousand cuts or come out swinging swords like Shinobi. They can even do both in the same game. That can’t be a fun prospect for opposing teams to scout and prepare for, but I think fans are going to enjoy it.

Characters for days

While the games would have been fantastic as is, a big part of the experience was running into folks I knew from Cubs Twitter and elsewhere. Not only had a lot of us made the trip out to SoCal, but tons of transplanted fans were there as well. I got to hang out with Danny Rockett from Bleed Cubbie Blue, Luis Medina from Bleacher Nation, and Joel Cummins — who I’m considering taking on as an intern — of Umphrey’s McGee.

Several more folks came up and actually recognized me — which was pretty cool and totally tripped out my co-worker — and I ran into a couple other friends as well. It certainly can’t compare to Wrigley, but there’s not a whole lot wrong with sharing pre- and post-game beers on a perfect Anaheim evening with fellow Cubs fans from all over the country.

Oh, I also met a guy who offered to share his pot with us while boasting about his ability to improve Kris Bryant’s swing plane in order to help the reigning Rookie of the Year hit more line drives. Dude said he could also throw 95, which was totally believable. I think Danny may have even recorded an interview with him, though I’m not sure whether or how that really worked out.

It was great to see the Cubs start to bear out the hopes we’d had for them, but it was even better to take in the experience with my friends. Here’s to 160 more games and maybe 150 or so more wins.

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