SAN FRANCISCO – Every moment from here through October, the Cubs will be under the microscope.
“Absolutely love it,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday night’s 8-5 victory over the San Francisco Giants. “I love the fact that the games are meaningful. I love the fact that people are going to use the word ‘pressure’ a lot and ‘scrutiny.’
“It’s good for our guys. We anticipate being here this year and years to come.”
Reporters surrounded Maddon inside the visiting dugout at AT&T Park, which would host its 387th consecutive regular-season sellout crowd. Barry Bonds hung around the cage during batting practice. The temperature dropped to 64 degrees by first pitch at this beautiful waterfront stadium, adding another layer of playoff feel to a place that has celebrated three World Series titles within the last five seasons.
Sports Illustrated had just put the Cubs on a regional cover – “WRIGLEYVILLE IS WINNERVILLE” – with a shot looking down the third-base line. Kris Bryant approached the mosh pit at home plate – with Pedro Strop strutting alongside him – during Monday’s walk-off victory over the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field.
ESPN is already here for Wednesday’s game against the Giants and will feature the Cubs nationally on “Sunday Night Baseball” at Dodger Stadium. Maddon doesn’t believe in jinxes or overexposure.
“You got to get used to it at some point,” Maddon said. “It’s a good thing. I talk about it constantly. If you want to run away from the word ‘pressure,’ then you’re really never going to be in a significant moment in your life.
“To this point, our players have really processed it well. And I really believe they’re going to continue to do so. It’s the best moment. It’s what you play for. It’s what you work toward.”
In embracing the spotlight and top-of-the-rotation expectations, Jake Arrieta has transformed himself into one of the game’s most dominant pitchers and a Cy Young Award candidate.
Arrieta retired the first 10 batters he faced and now leads the majors with 16 wins, lowering his ERA to 2.22 after giving up only one unearned run in six innings against a Giants team (66-59) that appears to be fading from the wild-card picture.
The Cubs (73-51) have won six in a row and 21 of their last 25 games, gaining control of the second wild card and moving to 7.5 games ahead of the Giants. The Cubs trail the Pittsburgh Pirates by only two games for the right to host a wild-card game at Wrigley Field. Within the division, the Cubs are 6.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, the first team to 80 wins this year.
“We can only control the teams that we’re playing right now,” Arrieta said. “We’ve played well against the Giants. We’ve played well against the Cardinals and the Pirates.
“The Cardinals continue to win, and I think everybody kind of expects that. All we can do is just put pressure on (them) and play sound and fundamental baseball.
“If we do that, we’re going to continue to win a lot of games. How everything works out in the end, a lot has to do with the teams ahead of us and what they do, because we’re going to continue to take care of business. It’s just going to require some good fortune ahead of us.”
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Ideally, with an eight-run lead, the Cubs wouldn’t have burned through five relievers and forced Hector Rondon to notch his 24th save. But the chanting, yelling and clapping during the postgame celebration could still be heard on the other side of the clubhouse walls.
The Cubs are enjoying the ride and checking their egos at the door, even if Rondon isn’t the official closer and even after Starlin Castro got benched. With Addison Russell arriving late to San Francisco after the birth of his son, Castro moved back to shortstop and fell a triple short of hitting for the cycle.
“I want to be part of this team,” Castro said.
Who wouldn’t? Kyle Schwarber definitely didn’t look nervous, setting the tone with a three-run bomb off Matt Cain in the third inning and becoming the first Cub since at least 1900 to hit 12 homers within his first 42 career games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“We’re so young, we really don’t know what we’re doing,” Schwarber said. “Right now, it just feels like we’re in a playoff game every game.”