MILWAUKEE – The Cubs didn’t want to cash in all their trade chips for a two-month rental at the deadline when the best-case scenario might be facing Gerrit Cole on the road in a one-game playoff.
The Cubs will miss the Pittsburgh Pirates ace during a huge three-game series that begins Monday night at PNC Park, but a young team will still get a feel for playing at that high level.
“I love it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “To really ascend in a division, you have to play the better teams within your group and beat them. And to beat them where they live also is important, too. It’s really kind of fun. I think it’s a blast.”
The Cubs ride into Pittsburgh with a sense of momentum after Sunday’s 4-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, sweeping this four-game series at Miller Park and thinking about October.
That pushed the Cubs to 10 games over the .500 mark for the first time this season – and into a tie with the San Francisco Giants for the National League’s second wild-card position.
The defending World Series champs open a four-game series at Wrigley Field on Thursday night. After this week, everyone should have a much better idea about whether or not the Cubs (57-47) really are contenders.
“They’ve been there, done that,” Maddon said. “No question. But at the same time, if you get a bunch of hungry guys coming on, that could be a pretty good position to be in, too.”
The Cubs got a quality spot start from Clayton Richard (one run allowed in six innings) on Sunday afternoon, wringing another win out of a guy who spent most of this season pitching for Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate.
The Cubs are able to line up their most accomplished pitchers – Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Dan Haren – for a Pirates team (61-43) that’s four games up in the wild-card race.
“We’re confident here that this group can get it done,” Arrieta said. “We just need to be conscious and aware of those moments when focus might start to slip mentally through the course of the game. Limit the mental mistakes. Make the plays we’re supposed to make and pitch a little bit. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans]
Even if winning the division appears to be out of reach for a third-place team that trails the St. Louis Cardinals by 9.5 games, there’s still value in feeling the heat of a pennant race. It’s all part of what the Cubs are trying to build here.
Forget all the rookies in the lineup and think about it this way: In his career, Anthony Rizzo has now played in almost as many All-Star Games (two) as meaningful games after the July 31 trade deadline (three).
“You have to stretch your mind once to get to the playoffs,” Maddon said. “And then moving beyond that, it becomes more believable on an annual basis and it’s something (where) you won’t settle for anything less than that on an annual basis. It’s all part of the maturation process of the team. It’s all there.”