Cubs

Clinch coming into focus for Cubs with magic number down to nine

Clinch coming into focus for Cubs with magic number down to nine

MILWAUKEE – Cubs win. Cubs lose. Who cares? Check back in October, because this season has been World Series or bust since this team reported to spring training and embraced the target.

The Cubs earned the chance to decompress in September, killing the drama in what was supposed to be a furious three-team race between the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates before the NFL season even starts.

What you need to know: The magic number to clinch the National League Central is now down to nine, even after Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, thanks to the Pirates beating the Cardinals 4-3 at PNC Park.

And the Cubs didn’t suffer any catastrophic injuries that could damage all their playoff hopes, the way the Washington Nationals now have to be bracing for worst-case scenarios with Stephen Strasburg.

Six years after undergoing Tommy John surgery – and four months after signing a seven-year, $175 million extension – Strasburg couldn’t finish the third inning during Wednesday’s start against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. This on the day the Nationals activated their homegrown ace after what was labeled a precautionary move to the disabled list with “right elbow soreness.”

In many ways, the Cubs mirrored the Nationals during a step-by-step process that built the league’s two best teams. But this time manager Joe Maddon could laugh about Justin Grimm facing one Brewer, exiting this game in the sixth inning with a stomach virus.

“What happened? I did not want him to soil himself on the mound,” Maddon said. “He told me: ‘I can get through it.’ I said: ‘No, you’re not. We’re trying to win this game. I’m not trying to get you through this inning.’ Or anything else through you at this particular moment. That’s it. He was ill.”

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So Cubs fans and the Chicago media can go back to projecting their playoff rosters: There are no apparent arm issues that would make Grimm (0.44 ERA in his last 25 appearances) a question mark for October.

The rest of this season will have to be viewed through that prism. Mike Montgomery, the sixth starter/lefty swingman, made another good impression, facing the minimum through three innings and not allowing a hit until Jonathan Villar blasted a home run over the left-center field wall leading off the fourth.

Montgomery stretched out to 87 pitches, allowing only one run on two hits while notching six strikeouts in five innings, giving the Cubs some insurance if their rotation has to deal with an unexpected Strasburg-level crisis.

Joe Smith – the veteran right-hander trying to pitch his way off the bubble – absorbed the loss after surrendering another home run to Villar in the eighth inning.

Even All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo admitted that he did a little bit of scoreboard-watching on a night where he blasted his 29th homer and just missed his 30th when Keon Broxton made a leaping catch at the center-field wall in the ninth inning. Depending on how this weekend’s series goes against the Houston Astros, the Cubs could be in position to clinch at the final stop on this road trip: Busch Stadium.

“Yeah, I saw they lost,” Rizzo said. “But we just got to play baseball. We know if we play, it’s going to take care of itself. The sooner, the better, obviously, but we just got to keep playing.”

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

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USA TODAY

Cubs' starting pitching a reasonable discussion topic, but Jon Lester's no fan of 'nitpicking' this first-place team

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.

But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.

No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.

If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.

The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.

“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’

“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”

Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.

Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.

None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.

“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.

“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.

“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”

The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.

But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Are the Cubs World Series bound? Dan Plesac says yes!

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Are the Cubs World Series bound? Dan Plesac says yes!

Where does MLB Network's Dan Plesac place the Cubs in his current power rankings and what's the key to their World Series dreams? Plus, which three star athletes mix to make Javier Baez? The conductor of the Big Blue train is back for a mid-summer breakdown of the Northsiders with Luke Stuckmeyer on this edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast presented by Wintrust.  

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below: