- The Washington Times
Monday, June 26, 2017

Baseball hasn’t had a team win back-to-back World Series since the New York Yankees did it three times from 1998-2000.

Despite that, Nationals manager Dusty Baker isn’t ready to say there’s a natural letdown for World Series champions the following year.

“I think there’s a short winter,” Baker said. “You’ve got a very short winter. You’ve got a very short winter on your pitching staff because while everybody’s resting in the month of October and in November now, you’re still playing. When you do win, it’s not usually until December that you feel like working out. If you take a month off or two weeks off, you’re looking at December.

“You get the rubber chicken circuit, everybody wants a piece of you, everybody wants to celebrate with you and people all around. Next thing you know, it’s time to go to spring training and you don’t have that much time to regroup physically and mentally.”

On Monday night the Nationals began a four game home-stand against a team that appears to be in the middle of a World Series hangover — the Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs are just 38-37 and have floated around .500 all year. At this point last season, Chicago was 49-26.

With a core of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Javier Baez, many in baseball felt the Cubs could dominate for years.

But defending a World Series crown is incredibly tough. The Yankees made the finale for a fourth straight year in 2001, but lost.

The 2009 Phillies are the most recent team to have won the World Series and make it back the next year. But Philadelphia fell short in its bid to repeat.

The Cubs haven’t found any consistency this year. As a pitching unit, Chicago is third in the National League (NL) with a 3.92 ERA, but starters Jake Arrieta and John Lackey have struggled. Arrieta has lost about 2 mph off the velocity of his fastball and has a 4.36 ERA after last year’s 3.10. At 38, Lackey has a career-high 5.54 FIP, which measures how effective pitchers are at preventing home runs, walks and hit by pitches while causing strikeouts.

Chicago’s hitting, meanwhile, is failing to deliver in timely moments. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has been tinkering with lineups all year, trying to find a lead-off hitter after Dexter Fowler signed with St. Louis in free agency. The Cubs are batting just .240, second to last in the NL.

Backup catcher Miguel Montero, though, said the idea of a World Series hangover is an excuse.

“We’ve just got to play the game and be who we are,” Montero said. “We have to kick everybody’s ass or they kick our ass. … The guys are that are coming to play, I can still see they’re still hungry. They want more. I love that.”

The Nationals-Cubs four-game series should serve as a good measuring stick for both teams — and perhaps a preview of an upcoming postseason showdown. Montero called the Nationals the best team in the league.

Baker remembered asking Hall of Famer Larry Doby when he started to prepare for the upcoming baseball season.

“My thought was spring training, and he told me you start getting ready a couple weeks after the season’s over,” Baker said. “There are times during the winter you don’t feel like working out, but you do it. There are times when you don’t feel like playing, but you do it. It’s synonymous to preparing yourself for the grind, the marathon that’s ahead of you.”

Montero said preparation wasn’t an issue, but added maybe earlier in the season they were going through the motions. With the All-Star break just weeks away, Montero said the Cubs are focused now.

Montero dismissed the idea the Cubs are feeling pressure to turn it around.

“Pressure? We’re the world champs, man,” Montero said. “They should be pressured.”

Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy noted the strength of the Cubs, but tried to downplay the significance of a four-game series near the end of June.

As for the concept of a World Series hangover, Murphy didn’t entertain the possibility.

“I don’t know. I’ve never won one,” Murphy said.

Murphy and the Nationals are hoping they can find out. There are still months to go before the finish line in late October — but in this marathon so far, the Cubs and the Nationals are running vastly different races.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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