Cubs

Cubs out to bury Cardinals: 'We're trying to clinch as quickly as possible'

Cubs out to bury Cardinals: 'We're trying to clinch as quickly as possible'

 

The Cubs don’t have to pick up cases of champagne at Binny’s Beverage Depot yet — and won’t be trashing the new Wrigley Field clubhouse this weekend — but Dexter Fowler can already picture that soaking-wet celebration.

“We’re trying to clinch as quickly as possible,” Fowler said. “We’re trying to do it right before September.”

Just kidding, Fowler said, sort of. And if that offends The Cardinal Way and The Best Fans in Baseball, then St. Louis should do something about it. Like right now, starting Thursday night at Wrigley Field, with this four-game series that should feel like a last stand. Or else the Cubs will conquer the National League Central and be crowned this year’s division champs.

The MRI on Pedro Strop’s left knee might have ramifications in October, but it won’t change the seemingly impossible math after Wednesday night’s 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels. The Cubs have a 12-game lead over the Cardinals in the division, a nine-game winning streak and a best-in-baseball, 30-games-over-.500 record in the middle of August.

“I’ve never been on a team this good before,” said winning pitcher Jason Hammel, who’s also gone to the playoffs with the Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A’s. “It’s kind of silly to go out and watch the guys do their work and how consistent they are. You know something’s good going to happen. We expect to win.”

Hammel (12-5, 2.90 ERA) accounted for seven scoreless innings, continuing the sense of momentum for a rotation that will create save opportunities for Aroldis Chapman and make it hard to envision the Cubs blowing a double-digit lead down the stretch.

Fowler (2-for-4, RBI double) again did his you-go, we-go thing at the top of the lineup, while Addison Russell continued his steady two-way play, contributing Gold Glove-level defense and an insurance home run in the eighth inning.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

The Cubs keep maximizing their young talent, as Carl Edwards Jr. stepped into the eighth-inning role after Strop limped off the field. With runners on second and third and no outs, Edwards struck out Mike Trout on a check swing at a 96-mph fastball. Edwards then won an eight-pitch at-bat against Albert Pujols, with a run-scoring groundball deflecting off the mound toward second baseman Ben Zobrist, who made a sliding stop. Edwards then forced another groundball against Andrelton Simmons, with Russell making a tough play look easy.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself ever,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Don’t ever take anything for granted. Don’t believe any of that stuff — just go play the game.

“We’ve been playing the game right. The process has been outstanding. Pitching and defense have really set the tone. We’ve gotten enough hits. Our guys are walking out on the field right now (and) feel really good about themselves.

“It doesn’t matter what the other uniform says on the front. It’s just a matter of executing the game.”

The Cardinals (60-54) might have already missed their chance to surge back into the division race, when the Cubs looked so worn out heading into the All-Star break and Theo Epstein’s front office hadn’t made the trade-deadline moves yet. Now the Cubs might be able to bury their rivals with these four games at Clark and Addison.

“We knew we had to kick it into high gear,” Fowler said. “You’re trying to clinch as quickly as possible and sit down and take a deep breath and go at it from there.

“Our end goal is to make the playoffs and win the last game of the season.”

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

Javier Báez joins Cubs All-Decade Team at second base, where El Mago was born

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

There may not be a player in baseball more exciting to watch than Javier Báez.

Whether at the plate, in the field or on the bases, Báez is a human highlight real. He’s one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; he has a cannon for an arm, exemplary defensive range and is a tagging maestro. He’s a dynamic baserunner who uses his elite baseball instincts to go station-to-station while magically avoiding tags along the way.

Yeah, there’s a reason Báez is known as “El Mago.” It’s not a matter of if he’ll make an incredible play each game, but a matter of when. Things come easy for the 27-year-old full of flair who makes the most difficult plays seem routine.

Báez is a career .270/.310/.484 hitter who’s hit 110 home runs in parts of six big-league seasons. One of those long balls came in his big-league debut (Aug. 5, 2014), a go-ahead blast against the Rockies in the 12th inning. The legend of El Mago was born.

Báez is the Cubs starting shortstop, though that hasn’t always been the case. Starlin Castro was the starter in 2014; Addison Russell claimed the title from Castro in the second half of 2015, holding it down until late in the 2018 season. Russell hit the injured list that August as the Cubs simultaneously acquired Daniel Murphy in an attempt to jump-start the offense.

By the time Russell returned, Báez was a clear-cut NL MVP candidate. The latter still bounced around the infield from time-to-time, but with Murphy entrenched at second, shortstop became Báez’s primary position. He’s been the starter ever since.

Báez has played 2,646 2/3 career innings at shortstop compared to 1,856 at second base (and 629 1/3 at third). He’s exclusively a shortstop these days, but the El Mago second base days aren’t forgotten.

Báez was the co-recipient of the 2016 NLCS MVP award (along with Jon Lester) and has started back-to-back All-Star Games (2018 at second, 2019 at shortstop). He was the runner-up for the 2018 NL MVP award, posting career highs across the board: .290/.326/.554, 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 129 OPS+.

And yet, it feels like Báez is only getting started. Nevertheless, his career to date has more than earned him a spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team at second base. With that, we'll leave you with this:

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

Anthony Rizzo joins Cubs All-Decade Team behind efforts on and off field

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

You saw this one coming, right?

As the Cubs’ longest tenure player, Anthony Rizzo was a shoo-in for this group. He hasn’t relinquished his starting first baseman job since making his Cubs debut in June 2012. The guy’s longevity alone is impressive.

But besides that, Rizzo has been a model of consistency during his time on the North Side. Since 2012, he’s hit 217 home runs (averaging 27 per season) and hit 32 three times from 2014-17. The lone exception? 2015, when he hit 31. So close…

As a Cub, Rizzo is a .277/.376/.496 hitter with a 132 OPS+. He produces at a high clip each season, whether he’s hitting third, cleanup or leadoff, all while simultaneously playing stellar defense. The 30-year-old is a three-time Gold Glove Award winner (2016, 2018-19).

Rizzo is the guy who comes up huge in key moments but will be there to address the media after tough losses. He’s the de facto captain of the Cubs, the guy who suffered a nasty ankle sprain in September that could have ended his regular season. Instead, he returned four days later for a key series against the rival Cardinals, as the Cubs were fighting to keep their October dreams alive.

When he’s not leading his team on the field, Rizzo is giving back to the community off of it. He’s one of the most charitable athletes in the world and recently raised $1.3 million for children’s cancer research at his “8th annual Walk-off for Cancer” in his home state of Florida.

Rizzo was the first building block of the Cubs core which snapped their infamous 108-year championship drought, but he’ll be remembered for more than that. He’s a leader on and off the field, the clear choice for starting first baseman on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Derrek Lee, Bryan LaHair