CHICAGO (AP) Best in the majors this season, the Chicago Cubs cleared their first big October hurdle. Now, they wait to see who's next.
The Cubs advanced to the NL Championship Series for the second straight year by knocking out the San Francisco Giants in a thrilling four-game NLDS. They will face the winner of Thursday's Game 5 between the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers in what they hope will be another step toward the World Series championship that has eluded the franchise since 1908.
Game 1 is at Wrigley Field on Saturday.
''I think it validates on a lot of different levels the job that we have done to this point,'' manager Joe Maddon said. ''I think if you're a player on this particular team within the organization, it's getting to the point now you want to expect to get to the postseason and you want to expect to get deeply into the postseason. It also speaks to the way we played.''
Chicago is looking for more this time after getting swept by the New York Mets in the NLCS a year ago.
The Cubs dominated like no other team in the majors this season, running away with the NL Central championship. They got off to a 25-6 start and spent all but two days in first place on the way to a major league-best 103-58 record - the most wins by the Cubs since they finished the 1910 season with 104.
For a franchise defined by heartbreak rather than championships, one can only imagine the anxiety in Chicago had the NLDS returned to Wrigley Field for a Game 5 on Thursday. But instead of the billy goat and black cat and Bartman , all thoughts are on the next round for a team that has followed Maddon's advice to embrace the high expectations.
''I think we're growing every day,'' pitcher Jon Lester said. ''The biggest theme for us is just never quit. We always battle and grind out until the last out and see what happens.''
The NLDS sure was one wild grind.
That series had it all, whether it was Lester and Johnny Cueto dominating on the mound in Game 1, Javier Baez coming up with huge hits or spectacular plays, the Giants rallying in Game 3 and ultimately winning in 13 innings, or the Cubs scoring four in the ninth on Tuesday to wrap things up.
The Cubs joined the 1986 New York Mets (in Game 6 of the NLCS against Houston) as the only teams to rally from a three-run deficit in the ninth to win a playoff series clincher. They also stopped the San Francisco's 10-game winning streak when facing postseason elimination and squashed the possibility of another even-year championship. The Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
''They played us tough,'' MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. ''I feel like if it did go back to Chicago we were ready to play. It's nice to get it done here, kind of regroup and find out who we're playing next.''
Whether it's Washington or Los Angeles, either series would offer intriguing storylines.
If it's the Nationals, how does Dusty Baker going against the Cubs in the postseason sound? Not that anyone would mention Chicago's collapse five outs shy of the World Series in the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins, when he was the Cubs' manager. No need to recall Steve Bartman, or shortstop Alex Gonzalez's error on a potential double-play grounder.
If it's Los Angeles, well, there's the connection between Maddon and Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, his boss in Tampa Bay.
But for now, the Cubs can rest. Avoiding a Game 5 against San Francisco means Maddon could go with Lester in Game 1 of the NLCS. It also quiets talk of curses for at least a few days, though this group refuses to buy into superstitions.
Little seems to rattle these Cubs, for that matter.
''They're so balanced, great pitching staff, great bullpen, that's why they won over a hundred games,'' Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. ''So whoever plays them has their work cut out. That's how good they are. And we played them tough.''