Cubs Cardinals Baseball

Fans hold up flags in celebration Monday night after a 10-2 victory by the Chicago Cubs over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. 

JEFF ROBERSON, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Of the past 12 World Series champions, seven didn’t make the playoffs the following year. Four of the non-qualifiers finished .500 or below.

Of the five champs to make the playoffs, four got as far as the League Championship Series. Only one, the 2009 Phillies, returned to the World Series, losing in six games to the Yankees.

So what?

So, the season after a world championship is a challenge. And, when “the season after” comes on the heels of the first world championship in 108 years, the challenge is unprecedented.

That’s where you have to tip your cap to the 2017 Chicago Cubs. Even if it’s a Cardinal cap, you have to gulp, lift the bill and give them their due.

Yes, they’re a long way from repeating. They will tell you that. Yet, in some respects the 88-68 record they took into Tuesday night’s potential division clincher at St. Louis was as impressive as anything they’ve done the past three years.

Hear me out.

It certainly has been more of a grind than last year’s 103-58 mark, in a season everything went right, and the 97-65 record of 2015, when many believed they were a year away. The exuberance of youth and absence of expectation makes for a “free and easy” approach. That was 2015.

In 2016, the pressure to end a century-plus drought was immense. We all know other Cubs teams succumbed to it, with and without Steve Bartman.

To finally clear that hurdle was equal parts history and hysteria. The celebration was long and loud, then longer still. It plowed through the dead of winter and the birth of spring until, as if overnight, it came time to play baseball again.

No team in memory — perhaps sports history — was as celebrated, honored and back-slapped as the 2016 Cubs. To experience that, then be asked to do it all again, was asking a lot.

Last year’s regular season was an open-road cruise with the top down. Those Cubs started fast, hit one small bump pre-All-Star break and then charged home unabated. They were Secretariat at the Belmont.

This season has been sixth months of rush hour traffic. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. Chicagoans know all about that. They just didn’t expect it from their World Series champs.

It has been that way in part because teams change. Clubhouse leaders move on (David Ross). So do rally starters (Dexter Fowler) and bullpen closers (Aroldis Chapman).

It’s also been that way because bodies break down. Very few did that last year on the north side. This season, injuries have been significant.

The starting rotation has seen Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey spend time on the disabled list. Shortstop Addison Russell and catcher Willson Contreras each missed several weeks.

Reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant has played through a thumb injury much of the season. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist had a stint on the DL as well.

Granted, every team has injuries … Clayton Kershaw in L.A., Bryce Harper in Washington, etc. The good ones overcome them and the Cubs, for all the starts and stops of this season, have done so.

Russell and Contreras are back. The starting rotation is as well, joining July acquisition Jose Quintana from the White Sox. Bryant is hitting the cover off the ball.

They may not win the World Series, but they’ve begun to resemble the team that did. Even after an 8-7 loss in St. Louis, they left the field Tuesday night with a chance to finish the regular season 93-69, a commendable leap from 43-45 at the All-Star break.

Give them their due.

They’ve earned it.

Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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Sports Editor

Sports Editor for The Pantagraph.

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