How the Cubs have formed a ‘mental edge' over opponents

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WASHINGTON — There's just something about the Cubs at Nationals Park.

Eleven months after Wade Davis and the Cubs somehow found a way to beat the Nationals in an epic NLDS Game 5, Joe Maddon's group once again battled and picked up a tough 6-4 win Thursday night in D.C.

Though this time, Davis was nowhere to be found and Maddon had to squeeze the absolute most out of his bullpen in the 10-inning affair.

Brandon Kintzler — now a Cubs reliever, but was a part of the Nationals bullpen in that NLDS — believes his current team has a "mental edge" over opponents. Daniel Murphy — who followed Kintzler from Washington to Chicago — said he was impressed with the way this Cubs team can take a punch and give one right back.

That's the perception of this Cubs team from the opposing dugout and they proved why again Thursday night.

With the win over the Nationals, the Cubs guaranteed they would finish this tough stretch of 23 games in 23 days with a winning record...and they still have six games to play to improve upon that record. 

"We've really fought through some very difficult moments lately," Maddon said. "... I think our guys are baseball bright enough and they've been through enough to know there's no sense in crying or complaining about this [stretch]. We gotta do this. And they've done wonderfully. We've done wonderfully with all this.

"I'm proud of them. I just want us to tighten up some of the periphery stuff, that's all. That's where I become a little bit of a perfectionist. It's about the controllable stuff. You can strike out, make an error, I don't care. But the controllable, mental side of the game is where I want us to be very tight."

Maybe the Cubs do have a mental edge over opponents like the Nationals. That winning culture could help explain why the 2018 Cubs are marching toward the best record in the NL while the Nats will probably be waving goodbye to Bryce Harper this winter without having ever won a playoff series.

It's impossible to try to quantify a "mental edge," but either way, the results are still the same — both last fall and the way the 2018 season has played out.

"I knew the Cubs were dangerous," Kintzler said. "They were a team I really didn't want to face because I knew [Max] Scherzer is only gonna have one start in the playoffs.

"I knew they were gonna have an edge on us. But then once they came into D.C. and they won 3-0 that first game and really should've won that second game — you knew it wasn't gonna be an easy series.

"You could just tell — they were a scrappy team and they had pieces that knew how to win a game. I felt that way. I don't know if as a team we felt that way, but I felt like we were definitely talented but the Cubs just had something that we didn't have."

Now that Kintzler has spent the last five weeks on the other side of the coin (he was traded from the Nats to the Cubs before the July 31 deadline), he has an idea what sets this team apart.

"They're pretty laid back here," Kintzler said. "That's the thing — they don't take anything too serious. A loss is a loss — they move on. Which, you know, the best teams are going to lose 65 times a year, so you might as well — not be good at losing, but you gotta be able to accept it.

"These guys are good at turning the page. And that's what makes them successful. They know that if they show up, they're gonna win. Even if everyone's hurt or out of line, they still feel like they're gonna win. They just have that mental edge.

"That's what I felt like when we played against them in the playoffs last year. They had something over us. I felt like we were the better team on that other side. They just had something over us. They had tons of confidence and they know how to win games."

Kyle Hendricks started Thursday's game at Nationals Park against Stephen Strasburg in the same pitching matchup for Game 1 of that NLDS last fall.

The Cubs right-hander believes his team's mental edge comes from a camaraderie in the clubhouse and wanting to win for each other.

"Being through it in '15 and '16, all those games in the playoffs has just brought the group pretty close together," Hendricks said. "A lot of us being young at the time, I think it kinda molded our mindset and how we play.

"It helps having the same kind of guys around and fostering that confidence knowing that we have what it takes in this clubhouse at all times."

That kind of approach and winning culture has helped the Cubs to their fourth straight winning season for the first time in franchise history since 1967-72.

The Cubs have spent a lot of time and energy focused on the mental aspect of the game over the last few seasons — something Maddon preaches on a daily basis. 

In the analytical age of baseball, many pundits undervalue the idea of clubhouse chemistry, but Maddon set about changing that culture immediately after he took over as manager of the Cubs prior to the 2015 season.

Before Thursday's game at Nationals Park, Maddon was asked what the secret is to the Cubs' sustained success the last few years.

"Before [pitching and defense] comes the culture and attitude," Maddon said. "And the believability on a daily basis and the selflessness. All these leadership kind of words that I think are true. The group that doesn't believe that is because they've never had to do it. Kind of a 'mock what you don't understand' kind of thing.

"What happens first — chemistry or the winning? Everybody says, 'Well, if you're winning you create [chemistry].' False. If you've never won before, you gotta do something to create that method so everybody in that room believes that you can.

"So there's a lot of intangible. ... The part you really can't see is the building of the culture and having groups come together and the relationship and the trust and all those things matter. It mattered [Wednesday night] in Milwaukee, a lot."

And it mattered in that NLDS, particularly Game 5.

"Our guys show up when it gets hot and they don't seem to be spinning too quickly," Maddon said. "They're not overwhelmed. I think that's a product of the room."

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