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.”