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Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster

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Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster

Major League Baseball had never seen a division like the National League Central in 2015. It’s officially the best ever, and it helped make the Cubs who they are now.

Since the wild-card era began, no division has seen a third-place team finish with more than 93 wins. The 2002 American League West had the Oakland A's with 103 wins, followed by the Los Angeles Angels at 99 and the Seattle Mariners with 93 victories.

The St. Louis Cardinals finished this year with 100 wins and the Pittsburgh Pirates came in at 98 victories, meaning the Cubs and their 97 wins got stuck in third place.

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Since divisional play began in 1969, these Cubs and the 1977 Boston Red Sox are tied with the most wins for a third-place team in baseball history.

The Cubs earned the third-best record in the majors and were rewarded with a one-game playoff against Gerrit Cole and the Pirates on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

"I think it's actually good for us long-term," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I'd be lying if I said there aren't times where you're frustrated looking at other divisions and you think to yourself that we'd be leading that division and guaranteed a five-game playoff series. But I think it's going to make us a lot better."

Hoyer worked with Theo Epstein when the Red Sox front office had to take down the New York Yankees’ "Evil Empire" in the AL East.

"The Yankees made us a ton better in Boston," Hoyer said. "Having to go up against them, there was no shortcut, no years of backing into winning a division.

"We know the [Pirates and Cardinals] are going to be good for a long time. And we're going to be good. I think we're going to go at each other for a long time. It's going to make all three teams better. We have to realize that.

"You can look at it as a negative, but also I know that if we advance a long way in the playoffs, it's environments like [playing them at Wrigley Field in late September] and environments like we've had in St. Louis and Pittsburgh that made our guys a lot tougher."

Joe Maddon has been making that point at least since spring training, remembering his first last-place season with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006.

[MORE: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta could be unstoppable in October]

“That was common fodder when I got there: The fact that they had to get out of this division in order to become successful,” Maddon said. “Otherwise, we can’t compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. And that’s all I heard.

“No, no, no, that’s wrong. We’re only going to get good this way. (And) I’ve said that from the beginning, man. You had to win in Boston at Fenway. You get to play there nine (or) 10 times a year. Good.

“Same thing with Yankee Stadium. You had to feel good about walking in that door, and then you could beat them there. And once you do that, then you could win anywhere. Not to go Frank Sinatra right there.”

After losing 96 games in 2007, the Rays won 97 the next year and made it to the World Series.

“It was exciting to play in that division, man,” Maddon said. “It was hot. It was really hot. It was pretty firm. And I think that’s why we got good fast, playing in those venues. Adversarial, tough fans, good teams, you better show up.”

The Cubs weren't expected to contend so soon, not after five straight seasons of fifth-place finishes and a roster packed with young, inexperienced players.

But with an everyday lineup that could feature four rookies, Maddon guided a team that improved 24 games on its 2014 record (73-89).

[SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

"I love playing in what is perceived to be the best division in baseball," Maddon said. "It's about the end of the season - the last game of the season - and getting to that particular moment. Sometimes, it takes a different route to get there.

"But I really respect what both [the Cardinals and Pirates] have done. I like to believe we've pushed them a bit, too, in this particular season. There was no let-up for anybody.

"That's kinda cool. It's great for baseball. It's great for us. And it really has aided us in getting better."

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 32nd homer in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

Sosa victimized the Tigers pitching staff again on the next night, taking Brian Moehler deep in the 7th inning for a 400-foot solo blast.

The homer tied the game at 3, but the Cubs blew the lead in the bottom of the 7th when the Terrys (Adams and Mulholland) gave up 3 runs. The Cubs wound up losing 6-4.

The Cubs were putting together a really nice season in 1998 that ended with a trip to October. They entered the series with the Tigers with a 42-34 record, yet lost both games to a Detroit team that entered the series with a 28-45 record. The Tigers finished the season 65-94; the Cubs finished 90-73.

Fun fact: Luis Gonzalez was the Tigers left fielder and No. 5 hitter for both games of the series. He spent part of the 1995 season and all of '96 on Chicago's North Side. 1998 was his only year in Detroit before he moved on to Arizona, where he hit 57 homers in 2001 and helped the Diamondbacks to a World Series championship with that famous broken-bat single in Game 7.

Fun fact  No. 2: Remember Pedro Valdes? He only had a cup of coffee with the Cubs (9 games in 1996 and 14 in '98), but started in left field on June 25, 1998. He walked and went 0-for-1 before being removed from the game for a pinch-hitter (Jose Hernandez).