The Cubs don’t have to pick up cases of champagne at Binny’s Beverage Depot yet — and won’t be trashing the new Wrigley Field clubhouse this weekend — but Dexter Fowler can already picture that soaking-wet celebration.
“We’re trying to clinch as quickly as possible,” Fowler said. “We’re trying to do it right before September.”
Just kidding, Fowler said, sort of. And if that offends The Cardinal Way and The Best Fans in Baseball, then St. Louis should do something about it. Like right now, starting Thursday night at Wrigley Field, with this four-game series that should feel like a last stand. Or else the Cubs will conquer the National League Central and be crowned this year’s division champs.
The MRI on Pedro Strop’s left knee might have ramifications in October, but it won’t change the seemingly impossible math after Wednesday night’s 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels. The Cubs have a 12-game lead over the Cardinals in the division, a nine-game winning streak and a best-in-baseball, 30-games-over-.500 record in the middle of August.
“I’ve never been on a team this good before,” said winning pitcher Jason Hammel, who’s also gone to the playoffs with the Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A’s. “It’s kind of silly to go out and watch the guys do their work and how consistent they are. You know something’s good going to happen. We expect to win.”
Hammel (12-5, 2.90 ERA) accounted for seven scoreless innings, continuing the sense of momentum for a rotation that will create save opportunities for Aroldis Chapman and make it hard to envision the Cubs blowing a double-digit lead down the stretch.
Fowler (2-for-4, RBI double) again did his you-go, we-go thing at the top of the lineup, while Addison Russell continued his steady two-way play, contributing Gold Glove-level defense and an insurance home run in the eighth inning.
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The Cubs keep maximizing their young talent, as Carl Edwards Jr. stepped into the eighth-inning role after Strop limped off the field. With runners on second and third and no outs, Edwards struck out Mike Trout on a check swing at a 96-mph fastball. Edwards then won an eight-pitch at-bat against Albert Pujols, with a run-scoring groundball deflecting off the mound toward second baseman Ben Zobrist, who made a sliding stop. Edwards then forced another groundball against Andrelton Simmons, with Russell making a tough play look easy.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself ever,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Don’t ever take anything for granted. Don’t believe any of that stuff — just go play the game.
“We’ve been playing the game right. The process has been outstanding. Pitching and defense have really set the tone. We’ve gotten enough hits. Our guys are walking out on the field right now (and) feel really good about themselves.
“It doesn’t matter what the other uniform says on the front. It’s just a matter of executing the game.”
The Cardinals (60-54) might have already missed their chance to surge back into the division race, when the Cubs looked so worn out heading into the All-Star break and Theo Epstein’s front office hadn’t made the trade-deadline moves yet. Now the Cubs might be able to bury their rivals with these four games at Clark and Addison.
“We knew we had to kick it into high gear,” Fowler said. “You’re trying to clinch as quickly as possible and sit down and take a deep breath and go at it from there.
“Our end goal is to make the playoffs and win the last game of the season.”