PHOENIX — It’s two minutes until midnight – Chicago time – when Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward come out of the visiting clubhouse Wednesday night, and slowly trudge down the Chase Field corridor.
They are the last two Cubs to leave.
They walk together toward the player bus, take the 15 minute drive to Sky Harbor Airport, and board a three-hour flight they’ve never been so happy to take.
Thursday – Day 31 – finally is the day the Chicago Cubs got to rest.
The Cubs had an honest-to-goodness day off for the first time since Aug. 20. No game. No weather delays. No flights. No bus trips.
“This was something unique, something we never should have had to do,’’ pitcher Mike Montgomery told USA TODAY Sports. “But we managed to get through it. Guys were mad and upset. I know I was. Every day to have to be ready for 30 straight days, it’s a lot to ask of any human being. Maybe when we look back, we’ll be stronger for it. It was an accomplishment, a boost in morale, knowing that we did it, and did it well.
“It’s just that no baseball team in the future should ever have to go through what we did.’’
The Cubs, with two rainouts, rain delays totaling almost 11 hours, a doubleheader and an overnight trip through a hurricane warning, played 29 games in 30 days.
And they survived the most grueling travel schedule any had endured since putting on a major-league uniform, winning 18 of 29 games on their odyssey. Now, they are back home in Chicago, on the verge of celebrating their fourth consecutive playoff berth.
“We went, what, 18-11?” manager Joe Maddon said. “Sign me up, man. Sign me up. I’m happy and proud with the way the guys have handled this. It’s not the way we drew it up. Clearly, an interesting time being all over the map, a 30-for-30 run to different cities, one-night stands, it’s been difficult. But we never let fatigue become an excuse.
“It’s going to be unusual not having to go to the ballpark Thursday. They’re not going to know what to do with themselves.”
The Cubs still are peeved at Major League Baseball, angry that they had to play their makeup day in Washington last week. Now, they plan to get even.
“It’s ridiculous that we had to go to Washington with a Category 3 hurricane coming that way,’’ Montgomery said. “All of us kind of lost our minds. I think Washington was still upset what happened last year in the playoffs when we beat them, so maybe they were trying to stick it to us a little bit.’’
It didn’t work. The Cubs were able to get to Washington before Hurricane Florence made landfall and won the makeup game, 4-3 in 10 innings They went 5-2 the last week to open a 2½-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.
“I think we might have gotten a little tired of seeing each other every single day,’’ shortstop Addison Russell says. “But I think it definitely brought us even closer together. There were a lot of laughs now that when we look back on it.’’
There was the day Rizzo didn’t bother packing a suitcase for their game against the Nationals, wearing his uniform, complete with eye-black, to D.C. He finally broke down in Phoenix and went shopping for clothes.
Ben Zobrist rode his bicycle to Wrigley Field one afternoon for a game, and pulled a Rizzo, wearing his game uniform. Maddon, wearing a Smoking Joe Frazier T-shirt Tuesday in Phoenix, took the team plane home wearing a vintage Jim Bakken St. Louis Cardinals jersey, the kicker from his favorite football team growing up in Hazleton, Pa.
There were no reports of lost luggage or carry-ons throughout the pilgrimage, but they did lose two closers along the way, and now must go into the postseason without being able to rely on solely one man for the ninth inning.
Still, they’re proving to be the team to beat in the NL, with a magic number of 8 to clinch the Central, knowing that if they can survive a pennant race after what they just endured, the postseason may feel pretty relaxed.
If nothing else, with the next two weeks scheduled in Chicago, they can wake up each morning remembering what city they’re in, or who’s pitching. Rizzo walked up Monday to Tim Buss, the Cubs’ strength and conditioning coordinator, and asked him whether Jose Quintana was pitching Tuesday. He was subtly reminded that Quintana just pitched the previous day.
“I said, 'Are you serious?' Rizzo said. “He really pitched yesterday?’’
Maddon said one night, he got up to use the bathroom, only to walk smack into a closet door.
“It was starting to get a little confusing being in all those strange hotel rooms. That was the worst part,’’ Maddon said.
The most painful part of the journey, of course, was watching his fill-in closer, Pedro Strop, strain his hamstring running to first base in their make-up game against the Nationals. He is expected to be sidelined until the postseason. Five days later, closer Brandon Morrow was shut down for the rest of the season, unable to recover from his bone bruise.
Little wonder why Maddon could only laugh when the Cubs’ fans lustily booed him Monday night when he removed starter Kyle Hendricks just one out shy of a complete game in their 5-1 victory against the Arizona Diamondbacks. One of those happened to be his son, Joseph Maddon.
“I get why he did it,’’ his son wrote on Twitter, “but I still booed my dad for pulling The Professor.’’
The trouble now, of course, is they may not know what to do without seeing one another for at least 12 hours every day. Maddon planned to go for a bike ride Thursday afternoon and catch up on the TV series The Office Most of the players planned on hibernating. And there were absolutely no plans for get-togethers.
“Hey, I love these guys,’’ Rizzo said, “but come on, 30 days is too much. We needed a break from each other.’’
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