Cubs chase history during an era in which repeating is harder than ever

Now that the Cubs have found a cure for their World Series hangover and made it back to the postseason, they will begin their bid for a repeat Friday night in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Nationals in Washington.

No team has won back-to-back championships since the Yankees did it three straight years from 1998-2000, so the Cubs are hoping to vault themselves into elite company. The Cubs are the first World Series champion since 2012 to return to the postseason the following year, which says a lot about the degree of difficulty involved.

"You would expect the World Series winner to be in the playoffs the next year every year," third baseman Kris Bryant said. "It just hasn't been the case."

Added Ben Zobrist: "It's hard, but it can be done. So that's what we plan on doing."

It won't be easy, and the odds are stacked against the Cubs as they begin their October trek.

The Cubs don't have home-field advantage against the Nationals in the NLDS and won't if they advance to play the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series — if LA gets past the Diamondbacks. Three of the four remaining American League teams, excluding the Yankees, also finished with a better record than the Cubs and will have the home-field advantage in any potential World Series matchup.

One of their two aces, Jake Arrieta, is battling a right hamstring injury, and a bullpen that ranked second in the National League in the first half with a 3.26 ERA was 10th in the second half at 4.48. The Cubs finished second in the NL in runs scored with 822 but were 12th with runners in scoring position with a .253 average.

Even if they fire on all cylinders, a repeat is extremely hard to pull off.

"Trying to do something really hard once is one thing," President Theo Epstein said. "Trying to do something really hard twice is another."

The Yankees did it in a different era when PEDs were widespread, analytics were still in their infancy and owner George Steinbrenner spent whatever was necessary to keep them on top.

The 1998-2000 Yankees' core included Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada, but they also had some of the best starters in the game and the best closer of all time in Mariano Rivera.

The '98 Yankees featured a rotation of veterans David Cone, David Wells, Orlando Hernandez and Andy Pettitte. They were first in the AL in ERA (3.82) and runs scored (965), winning 114 games en route to the AL East title.

In the postseason the Yankees held the Rangers to a .141 average and one run in a three-game ALDS sweep, knocked off the Indians 4-2 in the ALCS and swept the Padres the World Series.

For the repeat attempt in '99, the Yankees added Roger Clemens to the rotation while subtracting Wells. They were third in runs scored with 900 and second in ERA at 4.16, taking the AL East again with 98 victories. The Yankees swept the Rangers again in the ALDS, cruised to a 4-1 triumph over the Red Sox in the ALCS and swept the Braves in the Series.

The 2000 championship was the hardest of the three. They won 87 games and finished only 21/2 games ahead of the Red Sox. The White Sox led the AL in victories with 95 and runs scored with 978, but the wild-card Mariners swept them in the ALDS while the Yankees eked out a 3-2 victory over the A's in the other division series.

After beating the Mariners 4-2 in the ALCS, the Yankees brushed aside the Mets 4-1 in the Subway Series for the three-peat.

Solid starting pitching was one of the keys to the three-year run, and having Rivera as their closer obviously was crucial. But in reality there never should have been a three-peat. The 2000 season was an anomaly as the Yankees fell to sixth in the AL in ERA at 4.76 while ranking sixth in hitting.

The Yankees had a boatload of talent, just as the 2017 Cubs do, but also had some luck on their side. And whether PEDs played a role is also debatable, though this was before MLB began drug testing, so steroids were prevalent throughout the game.

Still, in 2012, Pettitte testified in federal court he took human growth hormone in 2002 and '04 and said Clemens told him he had used it in 1999 or 2000. Clemens denied the charge — saying it was his wife that had used HGH. — but he has not been voted into the Hall of Fame, likely because of the suspicion of PEDs.

The three-peat is in the books, and no team has gone back-to-back since. Epstein pointed out there's more roster turnover now and "there are less obvious advantages to exploit." Limits on spending in the draft, technological advances in analytics and other factors have leveled the playing field.

And there's the aforementioned "World Series hangover" the Cubs experienced this season. Mental and physical exhaustion from a shorter offseason is an impediment to getting off to a good start, as the Cubs discovered the hard way.

But if the Cubs do repeat, what can they do next year to prevent another World Series hangover?

"What we did this year was pretty fun, to be honest," Anthony Rizzo said.

So the Cubs should start out playing poorly again and turn it on the in the second half?

"Our goal every year is to win the division," he replied. "You play 162 games for a reason. The cream always rises to the top. ... What's written is written, but we're here."

The Cubs indeed are here.

But can they rise to the top again in the postseason and make a little history?

We're about to find out.

psullivan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

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