By Manny Randhawa
It took 71 years and 24 days, but it has happened: The Chicago Cubs have won the National League pennant and will play in the World Series after beating the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-0, in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series.
Needless to say, much has been made about that drought and the one that casts a looming shadow over it: the 108 years and counting since the Cubs last won the title. But there's also something to be made of just how difficult the journey to the Fall Classic has been for the 2016 Cubs, who have navigated far choppier waters to reach the precipice of baseball immortality than any of their predecessors in franchise history.
Let's begin with the length of the season: The ten Cubs teams that had reached the World Series from '06 to '45 played 154-game seasons. The 1918 club, which lost to Babe Ruth and the Red Sox in the Fall Classic, played 131 games in a season shortened due to World War I.
Following the regular season, each of those teams advanced to the World Series against the American League champion. As you know, there were no playoffs in between; the clubs from each league with the best win-loss record at the end of the regular season played each other for the championship.
Of course, today's road to the World Series is much more rigorous: 162 games and three playoff rounds (which includes the Wild Card Games). This year, the Cubs had to play 18 more games than their predecessors did before reaching the best-of-seven World Series.
From the introduction of the Wild Card in 1995 through 2015, the club with the NL's best record won the pennant only five times (just once over the final 12 seasons in that period). In other words, the postseason has been a minefield for teams like the Cubs over the past two decades.
Along with the lengthened season and proliferation of teams to beat in the playoffs, this year's Cubs are playing a different game than any other squad in franchise history that got to the World Series.
One of the most pronounced changes is the quality of pitching and usage of bullpens: The '16 Cubs faced 300 different pitchers during the regular season. The '45 Cubs faced 92, the '38 Cubs faced 77, the '35 Cubs faced 76, the '32 Cubs faced 68, the '29 Cubs faced 77 and the '18 Cubs faced 66.
This season's Cubs had to go up against hurlers that threw much harder, on average, than those their predecessors faced. Today's pitchers also have a larger repertoire in their arsenals. The result? In 2016, Major League hitters struck out 8.1 times per nine innings (a record), and pitchers struck out an opposing hitter 21.1 percent of the time (also an all-time high). A change in how hitters approach their craft has something to do with that (only during the 2000 season were more homers hit across the Majors). But pitching has become tougher, nonetheless.
In 1945, the strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio was 3.15, and pitchers struck out 8.1 percent of the batters they faced. Every other Cubs team to reach the World Series going back to 1918 did so in a season during which the K/9 ratio was between 2.9 and 4.6; the percentage of batters that struck out was within the range of 7.2 to 8.7.
All of this is not to mention the fact that this year's Cubs had to get through the likes of Madison Bumgarner (arguably the greatest postseason pitcher in baseball history) and Clayton Kershaw (the best pitcher on the planet) twice just to reach the World Series, beating Kershaw in the pennant-clinching Game 6 of the NLCS.
In 1945, hitters didn't study film on the opponent's starter. There wasn't a batting cage around every corner in the ballpark. Pitching to hitters of that era was a lot different than pitching to today's prototypical hitter, who is far better prepared for what he's going to see. And still, Cubs hurlers turned in the second-lowest team ERA in franchise history since '45, at 3.15.
The backdrop to all of this, of course, was made up of ghosts of postseasons past, specifically 1984 and 2003. As much as the 2016 Cubs say they don't worry about billy goats or black cats or foul pop-ups, they know the history. Anthony Rizzo knows about the ball that went between Leon Durham's legs in San Diego. Addison Russell knows about the Alex Gonzalez error at shortstop in 2003. These Cubs knew about the franchise's 0-6 record in potential pennant-clinching playoff games before Saturday night.
And through all that, a team whose starting lineup consists mostly of 20-somethings (not to mention two rookies in Game 6 that began the season at Triple-A Iowa) did what 72 editions of the Chicago Cubs before them could not.
No other club in the Majors played every game this season before a fan base that hadn't tasted this moment in more than 25,000 days. No other club had the ironic but real expectations to win that come with more than a century of losing.
But here they are: the 2016 National League Champion Chicago Cubs. There's another drought out there for this group to end. But whatever happens over the next week, what just transpired was momentous not only in its historical value, but in the degree of difficulty overcome to change a dream into reality.
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com and a contributor to Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @MannyRsports.