Cubs will keep their foot on the gas pedal with chance to clinch in St. Louis

Cubs will keep their foot on the gas pedal with chance to clinch in St. Louis

Cubs-Cardinals coverage begins on CSN Monday night at 7 p.m. with "Bases Loaded" airing at 6:30 p.m.

The Cubs celebrate every win with loud music and dance moves, the fog machine pumping so much that it sometimes sets off the fire alarms inside Wrigley Field’s underground clubhouse. So imagine how much this group would love to clinch the division at Busch Stadium, party in front of The Best Fans in Baseball and trash the visiting clubhouse, spraying bottles of champagne everywhere and dumping beers all over each other.

The St. Louis Cardinals are still the gold standard in the National League Central, and would be a dangerous team in a best-of-five series – if they can make the playoffs and win the wild-card game. The Cubs actually have a losing record (6-7) against the Cardinals, a hard-to-read, bridge-year team with a losing record (32-39) at home. With the magic number at five, it would take a three-game sweep for the Cubs to fly back to Chicago on Wednesday night as division champs. 

“We’ve proved that regardless of what our lead is, we got the gas pedal down,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “I don’t see anybody letting up.”

Clinching at Busch Stadium would be an exclamation point to the Cubs eliminating the Cardinals from last year’s playoffs and signing Jason Heyward and John Lackey as part of a $290 million spending spree – or another middle finger in a heated rivalry that began in 1892 and has seen St. Louis win 11 World Series titles.  

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who grew up as a Cardinals fan in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining territory, used his first year on the job to play mind games with St. Louis (“I don’t know if Tony Soprano was in the dugout…we’re not going to put up with that from them or anybody else”) and emphasize how a young team needed to go into hostile environments and learn how to win, the way his Tampa Bay Rays teams couldn’t become intimidated in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.   

Except for misunderstandings between Cubs fans wearing his “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts in April – and ushers enforcing ballpark policy on clothing with explicit language – Maddon has mostly let his team do the talking at Busch Stadium. The 2016 Cubs are a fully formed contender with blue-chip talent, a relentless attitude and a unique clubhouse culture.

“I anticipate hair on fire,” Maddon said. “I don’t care what our record indicates – I expect our guys to go out there and play the game right.

“From spring training right to now, man, I’ve been really pleased and impressed with our ability to come ready to play every night.”

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The Cubs responded to their worst month (12-14 in July) with their best month (22-6 in August), giving them a chance to clinch before Week 2 in the NFL, in a division that produced three teams with at least 97 wins last year.

As much as the Cubs feasted on the rebuilding/tanking Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds (20-8), they also ruined 2016 for the Pittsburgh Pirates (winning 12 of those 15 division games) and won the season series against the Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

“I don’t think that anybody is looking at where we’re at and celebrating,” Zobrist said. “We celebrate after the wins, one at a time. But outside of that, we know that there’s a lot of work to do. We come to play every day. And we come to get better every day. And we feel like our work is still a long ways from over.”

Zobrist earned a World Series ring last year with the Kansas City Royals and had been a key piece of the Rays team that shocked the baseball world by winning the 2008 American League pennant. The Cubs wanted that focus and experience to help them get back to October.

“The contributions are coming from everywhere, so everybody wants a piece of the pie,” Zobrist said. “In a way, you feel like if you haven’t done anything recently, you haven’t done anything, because there’s so much good play happening around the clubhouse here.

“You look at the starters, to the relievers, to the starting position players, to the bench players, there’s been contributions everywhere. So everybody’s kind of hungry to contribute and do what they can and prove that they (belong) on that postseason roster.

“That’s a good thing. That’s a good problem to have.” 

The Cubs have lined up their rotation for St. Louis with two Cy Young Award candidates going on Monday night (Kyle Hendricks) and Wednesday afternoon (Jon Lester), with Jason Hammel in between trying to show he’s a viable option for the playoffs. A Cardinals team that’s a half-game out of a wild-card spot will try to keep pace with Mike Leake (9-9, 4.61 ERA), Jaime Garcia (10-12, 4.58 ERA) and Carlos Martinez (14-7, 3.05 ERA).

Whether or not it happens near the Gateway Arch, it’s almost time for the Cubs to get their goggles ready.

“We haven’t slowed down since Day 1,” Hammel said, “so there’s really no reason to see why we would now.”

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Willson Contreras progressing, but still no timeline for return to Cubs

Before the Cubs hosted the San Francisco Giants on Day 2 of American Legion Week, Willson Contreras was out in left field running and working out his injured right hamstring.

The All-Star catcher hit the injured list earlier this month after hitting a line drive to the gap against the Milwaukee Brewers. 

That was two-and-a-half weeks ago and the Cubs initially tabbed the Grade-2 hamstring strain as a roughly four-week timeline. But team president Theo Epstein said Wednesday Contreras is not nearing a rehab stint.

"He's in what our trainers are calling the aggressive strengthening phase of his rehab, which is building up the hamstring strength now that he's gotten through the initial injury," Epstein said. "Always what comes with that is the strength deficit that you have to really be mindful of building back up so that you don't risk reinjuring it when you get back to full baseball activities. 

"You're gonna see him on the field a lot more over the next few days and hopefully soon he'll be progressing to baseball activities. He's not on the cusp of starting a rehab assignment or anything like that. He hasn't really progressed to baseball activities yet, so that will be the next step."

The minor-league season wraps up in the first couple days of September, so Contreras won't have much of an opportunity to get game at-bats and innings at catcher if he isn't able to head on a rehab stint soon.

But the Cubs won't rush it with one of their most important players. Contreras was hitting .275 with 19 homers, 57 RBI and an .890 OPS in 87 games before the injury.

In his absence, the Cubs have been pretty well covered with Victor Caratini and Jonathan Lucroy splitting duties behind the dish.

Lucroy - acquired Aug. 8 after being released by the Los Angeles Angels - is hitting .333 with a .798 OPS in 7 games and has impressed with his work as a game-caller and veteran presence. Caratini continues to put up quality at-bats while building on his breakout campaign.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Cubs' triumphant return home

USA Today

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Cubs' triumphant return home

Luke Stuckmeyer and Fred Mitchell join Kap on the panel.

0:00- Doug Glanville joins the guys to discuss the Cubs' triumphant return home, Nicholas Castellanos and the importance of the starting rotation over the rest of the season.

11:00- Scott Podsednik drops by to talk about another dominant performance by Lucas Giolito. Could the Sox contend next season after taking a series from another division leader?

17:30- Tony Andracki joins Kap from Wrigley Field with the latest on Ben Zobrist's return and if Brandon Morrow's shutdown will have any impact on the Cubs' bullpen.

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Sports Talk Live Podcast