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Forget Bears: Cubs are gearing up for 'little Super Bowl'

David Haugh
Chicago Tribune
Jake Arrieta, Cubs steal Chicago's attention on a football Sunday.

On the first autumn Sunday of September, smack dab in the middle of a football city, the most captivating right-hander in town was not the Bears quarterback — and not only did Jake Arrieta upstage Jimmy Clausen, but some fans probably hope he replaces him against the Raiders.

With Arrieta finalizing a strong case for the Cy Young Award by retiring the first 18 Pirates, the team creating the biggest buzz in barrooms and living rooms wore stirrups, not shoulder pads. And if you wanted to hear somebody in charge seriously invoke the Super Bowl without getting laughed at, you had to be standing near Cubs manager Joe Maddon, not Bears coach John Fox.

Asked at Wrigley Field before the nationally televised series finale about his plan to rest players before the postseason, Maddon referred to the wild-card play-in game as "our little Super Bowl.''

Other than that, football was an afterthought on a day the Bears wanted to forget after a 26-0 loss to the Seahawks that made Chicagoans remember Henry Burris. As one of the televisions in the Cubs clubhouse showed the Bears-Seahawks game, more players paid attention to coverage of the fight between Nationals teammates Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper. Now that was an offensive attack.

Football season? This fall promises to be a classic in Chicago thanks to baseball, the Cubs and Arrieta. Not only did the Cubs outscore the Bears on Sunday, they look capable of winning more games in October too — starting with their "little Super Bowl" in nine days. But don't expect Maddon to start overpreparing anytime soon the way football teams do before their big game.

"I don't want all that,'' Maddon said. "We're not going to do any more prep, any more video study. We played (the Pirates) 19 times this year. If you don't know them now, you're not going to.''

Maddon explained the plan simply: The Cubs will arrive in Pittsburgh on Monday night, Oct. 5, find a good restaurant, work out Tuesday and hold the third team meeting of the season just as he vowed in spring training. Traditionally, Maddon's first two come before the first game and at the All-Star break.

"I promise it's going to be short and not going to be Lombardian,'' Maddon said. "The biggest thing I want them to do is get into the same routine they have all year, the same kind of prep. Go play.''

Whether the Cubs should have had as much fun playing or partying after Saturday's loss while celebrating the team's first playoff berth in seven years caused a bit of a stir. Critics wondered why the Cubs partied like it was 2008 for, essentially, finishing third in the National League Central. The question I would ask isn't why, but why not? How does a Sept. 26 celebration affect Oct. 7 execution anyway?

Arrieta makes the Cubs party-proof. Nothing that happens now or next week matters if Arrieta continues to confound hitters the way he did again in taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in front of a crowd of 40,617. And Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole, his equally impressive counterpart, could be so unhittable that night it wouldn't have mattered if the Cubs went to bed Saturday night at 10:30 after celebrating with milk and cookies.

Remember that teams reflect their manager, and Maddon revels in being the most interesting fellow in every room he enters. Celebration is a natural extension of his personality and perfectly in character for the young Cubs. So when Maddon described an intimate Saturday night gathering at the Country Club in Wrigleyville, which followed a postgame bash in the clubhouse that spilled enough champagne to make the carpet sticky a day later, naturally he beamed.

"Jon Lester spearheaded the (event),'' Maddon said. "It was special.''

It was the kind of moment a manager savors when he isn't worried about his team suffering a letdown after exhaling at the end of a long, successful run into the playoffs.

"No, that's not the threat — the threat is that the other team pitches better than us,'' Maddon said correctly. "Our guys have really been impressive the way they've gone about it.''

The only thing the Cubs lack is experience, a factor Maddon discounted from his days with the Rays and Angels. When Maddon was the Angels bench coach during the World Series-winning season of 2002, reliever Francisco Rodriguez made his major-league debut Sept. 18 — and dominated the postseason. When Maddon managed the Rays in 2008, David Price debuted as a starter Sept. 22 and, 19 days later, won Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. Age often is irrelevant.

"Whoever fires the first salvo has an opportunity to dictate the game,'' Maddon said.

As long as Arrieta keeps firing like this, the Cubs have to like their chances in the wild-card game — and beyond.

dhaugh@tribpub.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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