PITTSBURGH – Next? The Cubs just dominated a Pittsburgh Pirates team that’s won 280 games and made three playoff appearances across the last three seasons, showing they’re so much more than a look-at-us team on paper and baseball’s goofiest clubhouse.
Joe Maddon’s “Minimalist Zany” road trip ended with Wednesday afternoon’s 6-2 win at PNC Park, the Cubs finishing off the three-game sweep before changing into the suits – pink coats, leopard and camouflage pants, ugly plaid and Stars and Stripes – required for the flight back home to Chicago and a showdown against the Washington Nationals.
The Cubs spent close to $290 million on free agents after beating the Pirates in last year’s National League wild-card game, while also budgeting for the natural improvement from their young players and the experience gained during that playoff run.
The Cubs outscored Pittsburgh 20-5 during what was supposed to be a tight, tense series, bumping their run differential to plus-93 for the season. Did the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals do enough to keep up in the Central? Is this really the game’s toughest division? Still see you in October?
“We know what we’re up against,” winning pitcher Jon Lester said after throwing 5.2 scoreless innings against the Pirates (15-13). “That’s a good ballclub. The Cardinals are a good ballclub. We know that we have to go through those two teams to get where we want to go.”
At 20-6, the Cubs have the best record in baseball, a six-game lead over the Pirates, questionable fashion sense, contributors up and down the roster and a killer instinct.
When Gold Glove outfielder Andrew McCutchen couldn’t secure the bullet Anthony Rizzo hit to center with two outs in the third inning – initially ruled an error – Ben Zobrist blasted Juan Nicasio’s next pitch onto the right-center field concourse for a three-run homer.
“We constantly are putting the pressure on the other team,” catcher David Ross said. “That ball’s smoked. I don’t know if that’s a break our way or not. That ball’s crushed. That’s a tough play and you see a superstar almost make (it). It’s a sign of a good team when they take advantage of the other team’s mistakes. But it’s also a product of us constantly putting pressure on their team. Those guys are standing out there a long time.”
If not for Jake Arrieta’s historic run and encore performance after his Cy Young Award, more people would be talking about Lester’s fast start (3-1, 1.58 ERA). Lester worked around a bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning with two strikeouts and Zobrist helping to prevent a sacrifice fly on a ball hit down the right-field line, covering for Jason Heyward while the Gold Glover rests a sore wrist.
Lester could also laugh about his throwing issues that have been dissected over and over again. When Lester fielded Francisco Cervelli’s comebacker in the second inning and the ball got stuck in his glove, he tossed his glove at Rizzo. The first baseman dropped his glove to the ground and cradled Lester’s glove in his chest.
“God dang, how about that?” Lester said. “I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping care of my glove and making sure I don’t have any holes or it’s loose or anything like that. Of course, today it finds that hole. But an out’s an out, so whatever.”
After what turned out to be a whatever series in Pittsburgh, maybe these four games against the Nationals will create some buzz, starting Thursday night at Wrigley Field.
It means the return of Dusty Baker – no manager has pushed the Cubs farther or closer to the World Series since 1945 – and side-by-side comparisons of Boras Corp. clients Max Scherzer ($210 million guaranteed) and Arrieta (the meter is still running).
Plus there’s the friendly rivalry between Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant, the league’s reigning MVP and Rookie of the Year who grew up together in Las Vegas playing with and against each other. And Jonathan Papelbon, the eccentric closer the Cubs tried to trade for last summer before the Nationals flexed their financial muscle (only to watch it sabotage their clubhouse without the buffer zone of ex-Boston Red Sox players the Cubs could have created).
“It’s just so much fun to play good teams,” Maddon said. “You get them on the field and then you look out there from the dugout: How do we stack up? What does this thing feel like? You look on TV, you read different things, but you got to actually see it.”
The rest of the baseball world is just beginning to see what this sleeping-giant franchise could become.