Sunday October 30th, 2016

CHICAGO — Nine massive Samsung flat screens hang around the center seating area of the gleaming new Chicago Cubs clubhouse, facing out in all directions so any sights or messages they display are easy for all to see. Late Saturday, after a shambling, incoherent night in the World Series, after the best team in baseball looked its absolute worst at the absolute worst possible time, the same three lines of white text were set against the same blue backdrop on all nine of the televisions.

SCHEDULE FOR SUNDAY, the header read.

DRESS AT 5:30 p.m.

Game at 7:15 p.m.

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No schedule for the batting cage, no note about stretching, nothing but a directive to show up and get ready to play. For visitors, these seemed like unremarkable reminders. For the regular inhabitants of the room, who were now maybe one day away from a spectacularly depressing end, there was no mistaking the larger meaning.

“Sounds like a normal day in Chicago to me,” right fielder Jason Heyward said, permitting himself a half-smile at the thought.

This is how the Cubs would confront the thought of oblivion: Relaxed, unbuttoned, and without a thought of doing things any differently than they had until now. It was undoubtedly counterintuitive to anyone who witnessed what occurred in the evening hours at Wrigley Field, when the Cubs absolutely had to be very good at baseball and instead were pretty terrible at it, a disheveled, unraveling lot that couldn’t pitch or hit or throw with anywhere near the reliability that the moment demanded. During a 7–2 loss to the Indians in Game 4, for maybe the first time all year, this truly looked like a team overcome by its circumstances.

It was a night that seemed to obliterate the team’s generally worry-free, impenetrably confident approach to, well, everything. Teams in the Cubs’ current predicament, down three games to one in the World Series, historically have wound up champions just six out of 46 times. If there was occasion for alarm, this was it, if only because even a light touch of the panic button might send a very necessary jolt up their rear ends.

But not this team. Not even now. Not even when every instinct suggests a bit of discomfort actually might do them some good. No, it was just show up and get ready to play on Sunday, wherever that takes them, even if it takes them nowhere. “I wouldn’t change it,” Heyward said. “It’s just the way it is. Keep going until the end. From spring training to this day, we always told ourselves, approach every day the same. Go out there, get after it, compete, bring the best out of each other and look up at the end and see where that gets you.”

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Maybe the Cubs’ rousing success before this series earned them the right to remain assured in their routine. The unflattering failures Sunday earned them this ultimate test of those principles. They plated a run in the first inning and shook their home crowd, then failed to add another until Dexter Fowler’s solo home run in the bottom of the eighth. By then, the team that scored the third-most runs in the major leagues this season was riding a ghoulish 1-for-27 streak with runners on base. Not that any other elements of its game fared better.

John Lackey, the $17 million starter brought in for what he alluded to as “big boy” games back in June, gave the lead back right away and gave up three runs in five innings, stopping the pouting and settling in too late. (Lackey throwing his head back dramatically after not getting a call on a 2–2 pitch in the third inning, and then surrendering a run-scoring single on the very next offering after the theatrics, neatly encapsulated that story.) Add in a relief corps that couldn’t stanch the bleeding and a defense that threw wide of first base three times, twice for errors, and you had about as miserable a night as anyone could imagine.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

And they’d imagined much more. The multitudes at Wrigley Field were on their feet and frothing at the first pitch. “The energy in the first few innings—I’ve never heard it as loud,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. By the end the place was a funeral parlor. Where the concourses were devoid of life in the ninth inning of Game 3—no one dared leave their seat lest they miss the Cubs whip up some magic in a one-run game—many passed by the concession and souvenir stands as Game 4 neared its end. A bitter resignation had set in for the most blindly hopeful fan base in the game.

The Cubs didn’t betray a similar acquiescence, not that they had a choice to leave this thing early. They had their three best starters set for three possible remaining games, with ace Jon Lester throwing in Game 5. They posted 14 streaks with at least three consecutive wins during the regular season. They won three in a row against the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. “We just need that one moment,” manager Joe Maddon insisted after Game 4, while duly realizing his team needs to stack those moments pretty high at this stage.

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“There’s no doubt that we can do it,” third baseman Kris Bryant said. “We can be down, but we can get back up just as easily. That’s what makes this game great. We’re not out until we’re out.”

It might be useful for the Cubs to lose some of that composure, at least in a constructive way, to jerk them out of this baseball miasma they’ve lurched into this weekend. Only they simply don’t see it that way. They believe they’ve carried a requisite urgency into all the Sundays and all the other days—“Every single game we’re in here saying the same thing: Gotta win, gotta have it,” Rizzo said—so there is no use in doing it differently now.

Dressed by 5:30 p.m., ready to play by 7:15, just a simple and uncomplicated directive to follow into Game 5. “It’s come in, do anything we can to win the ballgame, and we figure it out from there,” Rizzo said. One moment, doing it the way they always have, and then the Cubs see if another one follows.

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