The Cubs’ five-game lead for the second wild card spot could, perhaps should, afford them a bit of leeway.
It could be a reason to back off, rest a few regulars, pull starters early, or give the four stalwart rookies a bit of a break.
But with the Pirates just three games ahead for the top wild card spot, Cubs manager Joe Maddon was hearing none of it on Sunday morning. Following back-to-back comeback wins, including a thrilling one on Saturday that featured a bevy of basket home runs, the Cubs have a chance to register their fourth four-game sweep of the season.
Having already swept four-game sets from the Mets, Brewers and Giants this year, Chicago can sweep Atlanta on Sunday. The Cubs haven’t swept four, four-game series in a single season since 1945. A win would also put the Cubs at 71-51, a high watermark for the season.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
“We weren’t satisfied with splitting the series after we won the first two. I love that,” Maddon said. “That was obvious yesterday by the comeback that we had. And so now you go for it. You go for it. You’re not, ‘Oh, we won the series.’ No, no, no. You don’t do that. You can never think that way. That’s the trap that really prevents you from being as great as you can be. This is where you really go for it.”
The Cubs, who are 18-4 in their last 22 games, are testing the limits of how good they can be. Part of the excitement is that the answer to that question is largely unknown. But they’re hardly content with the fourth-best record in the big leagues to this point, because given their NL Central opponents, a solid year simply won’t make the postseason cut.
Jason Hammel gets the start on Sunday, looking to rebound from an awful outing in his last appearance against the Tigers. Hammel, who hasn’t won at home since April 27th, allowed nine hits and three home runs on a blustery day at Wrigley last Tuesday. He hasn’t gotten through six innings since July 3 – a span of 7 starts – so the Cubs’ bullpen may be taxed yet again.
In the three wins vs. the Braves thus far, Cubs relievers have been responsible for 11 2/3 innings of work. Maddon’s quick hooks are yet another indication of how important he views each game, whether the opponent is Atlanta (which owns the most road losses in the majors) or a postseason hopeful.
The contenders – San Francisco and Los Angeles – are on deck, but on Sunday, the Braves had Maddon’s undivided attention even with the series in hand.
“It’s Sunday," Maddon said. "That’s all I’m worried about is Sunday. We’re playing the Dodgers and the Giants next week. Fine. But I’m worried about Sunday. … I think the trap is when you start getting caught up in this rush to the finish line as opposed to taking care of the moment. I think if you’re able to maintain that mindset, success follows.”
A shortsighted perspective ensures the Cubs won't get caught up in the frenzy of a September pennant chase. Although, like it or not, that time is rapidly approaching.