MILWAUKEE – Playoffs? Joe Maddon almost sounded like he had been pregaming a little too hard before his first press conference at The Cubby Bear last November.
And then the new Cubs manager offered to buy everyone the first round The Hazleton Way – a shot and a beer – at the bar opposite the Wrigley Field marquee. Whatever, forget it, he’s rolling.
But this party will continue into October, the Cubs finishing an unbelievable regular season with 97 wins after Sunday’s 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.
As crazy as that would have sounded at the beginning of spring training – when Maddon kept talking about the playoffs, man – how about that only being good enough for third place in the National League Central?
The Pittsburgh Pirates finally clinched home-field advantage for the wild-card game on Sunday, beating the Cincinnati Reds 4-0 to notch their 98th win.
So the Cubs will fly to Pittsburgh on Monday, work out at PNC Park on Tuesday and start potential Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta on Wednesday against Gerrit Cole (19-8, 2.60 ERA) and a Pittsburgh team that’s been hardened by earning three postseason appearances in the last three years.
“Obviously, the adrenaline’s going to run a little more,” Anthony Rizzo said. “But I think we’re ready for it. We played tough games against Pittsburgh all year – at their place, at our place – and we got Jake on the mound. We know when he’s out there, we’re a really, really loose bunch. We’re excited for it.”
Rizzo – who got his 100th and 101st RBIs with a bases-loaded single in the first inning – had stood in the same visiting clubhouse after Game 162 last season and said it was finally time to compete.
That was before Maddon escaped from his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, Jon Lester signed a $155 million megadeal to make history in Chicago and Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber made their big-league debuts.
The All-Star first baseman then predicted a division title during a stop at a local elementary school leading up to Cubs Convention. The St. Louis Cardinals won the Central, but this is still a 24-game improvement from 2014.
“I just had a feeling that this was going to be a good year,” Rizzo said. “I obviously said it in January. But we just raised our bar. The bar is set from here on out – to keep repeating this.”
The Cubs watched Arrieta develop into a 22-game winner and finish with the lowest post-All-Star break ERA in major-league history (0.75). Bryant became an All-Star and had a Rookie of the Year season with 26 homers and 99 RBI.
Dexter Fowler had a sensational walk year, scoring 102 runs and filling holes at the top of the order and in center field. Hector Rondon – the Rule 5 guy – saved 30 games and put up a 1.67 ERA.
“I’m really hoping or anticipating that our guys are going to be the same,” Maddon said. “That’s why I preach it all year long – I want us to play the same game. We’re not going to do anything differently.
“There’s not going to be anything new to put in there. There’s no new packages. We’re not running a new offense. We’re not going to blitz any more. No 3-4 (defense). Please don’t do anything differently. Just go play.”
The Cubs have gone 46-19 since getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the Philadelphia Phillies, the worst team in baseball, finding another gear that Theo Epstein’s front office didn’t see coming in Year 4 of the rebuild.
The Cubs won 34 one-run games this year, 23 in their last at-bat and 13 in a walk-off celebration, showing mental toughness and pitch-to-pitch focus for a goofy bunch that likes to rub helmets and have dance parties in the clubhouse.
The Cubs closed with an eight-game winning streak and a real sense of momentum knowing Arrieta will stare down the Pirates in a one-game playoff.
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“We like our chances,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “We feel good about it. Everybody is pulling in one direction, believing. And that’s a powerful thing when you got millions and millions of fans and players and personnel all believing we can pull this thing off.
“We’re on a good roll. We just want to keep rolling. All we want to know is if it’s a day game or a night game.”
It will be a 7 p.m. CST start on Wednesday in Pittsburgh and we’ll see how this group responds under the bright lights of October. The Cubs essentially had identical records at Wrigley Field (49-32) and on the road (48-33) this year and have an anytime/anywhere attitude with Arrieta on the mound.
After finishing in fifth place five times during his first five seasons, making three All-Star teams, losing his job at shortstop and moving to second base without complaint, Starlin Castro might appreciate this more than anybody else inside the clubhouse.
“We worked so hard to be good,” Castro said. “And now is the time. Just keep showing it.”