The Cubs aren’t taking their sizable lead in the National League Central for granted and fully expect the St. Louis Cardinals to make a run at some point in the coming months.
If and when that push comes, though, the Cubs will probably have a sizable enough lead to withstand it and waltz to their second consecutive playoff appearance. FanGraphs gives the Cubs a 99 percent chance of winning the National League Central, which is an awfully comforting percentage that soothes the narrow-view sting of back-to-back bullpen meltdowns against the second-place Cardinals.
Hector Rondon allowed an eighth inning go-ahead three-run home run to Stephen Piscotty that sparked the Cubs’ 6-4 loss to the Cardinals Sunday night in front of 41,019 at Wrigley Field. Piscotty laid into a 1-1 fastball from Rondon and flung his bat down, yelling and jumping around in an immediate celebration.
But no matter how badly the Cardinals crashed the party over the weekend, the Cubs hold a 12-game advantage in the NL Central through 115 games. And that’s a fact of which the Cubs, while paying lip service to the “we’re not looking ahead” deities, are certainly aware.
“Obviously it makes it a little bit easier to think about, I can’t deny that,” Maddon said. “But at the end of the day, before this series began, based on all the stuff we had going on, you always will take that split, them coming in. But when you get in a position to get more than that, that’s the part that you don’t necessarily like. However, we played well. Every time we play well, and even if we lose, I’m okay. So for the most part, we had an 11-game winning streak, played well but they got you late, so there’s not a whole lot you can do about that.”
The Cubs failed to capitalize on an ideal opportunity an inning before the Cardinals blew things open on Sunday, loading the bases to begin the seventh but meekly seeing Matt Szczur fly out, Dexter Fowler strike out and Kris Bryant fly out against right-hander Matt Bowman to prevent them from ballooning their 3-1 lead.
Rondon, who hadn’t pitched in 12 days due to a triceps issue, allowed Kolten Wong to reach on a line drive single to lead off the eighth, which Greg Garcia followed with a bunt single. Piscotty then laid into a 1-1 fastball and clobbered it deep into the left field bleachers to put St. Louis ahead.
“That’s what they do, that’s what they’re made of,” Anthony Rizzo, who homered and had three RBIs Sunday, said. “It’s good to split knowing they’re chasing us.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
The Cubs went through something similar with the Cardinals last year, when Jhonny Peralta’s two-out, two-strike go-ahead two-run home run off Pedro Strop prevented the Cubs from winning a four-game series at home in early July. The roles are reversed this year — it’s the Cubs with the significant lead, not the Cardinals — but it’s a good lesson in not overreacting to one or two games for a team that’s handily on top of its division.
“We’re in a fortunate situation,” John Lackey, who threw 6 2/3 innings Sunday before being pulled due to a tight shoulder, said. “When you have the kind of lead we have, you kind of have leeway to do some things. We’re just checking games off the schedule.”
Still, the Cubs haven’t clinched a playoff spot, no matter how much the odds are in favor of that happening. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Thursday: “You can’t tell us until we get to the end of the season how this whole thing is going to play out.”
That dozen-game cushion, though, is means we probably know how this season is going to play out. But just because the Cubs have it doesn’t mean they’re writing off the Cardinals, or starting to look ahead to their first National League Division Series Game.
“I don’t find myself looking ahead because we haven’t done anything yet,” Jason Heyward said. “You gotta do it to get there, you gotta clinch first, and after that, you gotta take it one series at a time.”