CHICAGO -- Last season, the Cubs posted the best record in the Major Leagues, winning 103 games en route to their first World Series championship in 108 years. This year, the defending champs aren't the favorites, and pitcher Jon Lester says that's OK.
"Winning [the World Series last year] helps," Lester said on Wednesday about the Cubs' anxiety level heading into the National League Division Series against the Nationals, with Game 1 set for tonight at Nationals Park. "We're not anxious. We've won, so you have that in your back pocket, so you're not putting as much pressure on yourself to go out and perform.
"Last year, we had all these expectations and we were supposed to win the World Series," Lester said. "That, to me, is harder than defending the World Series. Going forward, we have nothing to lose. We're still a really good team and we should win the World Series."
The Cubs were 5 1/2 games back in the NL Central race at the All-Star break, but they posted the best record in the NL in the second half, which included a 15-4 spurt in the final 19 games of the regular season.
"We've played better baseball in the second half than the first half," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "Whether you sprint in or limp in is out the window."
The Dodgers (104-58) and Nationals (97-65), who posted the two best records in the NL, have higher expectations than the Cubs (92-70) do.
"I think we're in a good place," Lester said. "I like this team being underdogs. We have some very prideful guys on this team. I like that aspect of it. We're playing good baseball. We've been playing really good baseball in the second half and we're looking forward to getting this going."
When Cubs manager Joe Maddon met with his players on Tuesday, he said he didn't have to say much. They've been there, done that.
"We know how we want to do this, we know what our plan is," Maddon said. "We know how we want to approach the day. For a lot of us, having been together for a bit matters at this time of year. The point was, I really am impressed with how our guys handle this time of year."
"I still wish he was a Met," Maddon quipped about Murphy.
Lester said it's a different feeling being the defending World Series champions.
"I've been fortunate to be a part of it a couple times," said Lester, who has won World Series with the Red Sox and the Cubs. "I think as defending champs, you're not as anxious. You've been through it, especially last year. We went all the way down to the wire [last year] and Joe talked about it [Tuesday] as far as us, basically 95 percent of our team has been through everything. There's not going to be anything that surprises us as we go through this journey."
Team records reset to 0-0 heading into the postseason.
"Each team thinks they're the best team, and for us it's no different," Game 1 starter Kyle Hendricks said. "We think we can do it again. Having that mindset is one thing, but going out there and getting the job done is another. We're just going to go out there and try to play the best baseball we can."
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.