The hunt for a path through October is on for the Cubs, and this might be the most important week of the nine-week season to find it.
Mostly, that involves watching the second-place Cardinals play eight games during a five-day span in which the first-place Cubs play only three — which could mean finding themselves facing serious pressure from the Cards by Saturday or on the verge of clinching by doing little more than scoreboard watching.
“I don’t think we even have the opportunity to scoreboard watch in most parks,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “because I don’t think with limited staffs there’s many scores being posted.”
We’ve got that covered for Rizzo. And once he downloads the MyTeams App from NBC Sports Chicago, he’ll probably notice that the Cardinals opened their hell week of makeup doubleheaders by splitting a pair of extra-inning games in Milwaukee on Monday while the Cubs enjoyed the first of their final two scheduled off days.
That left the Cubs’ four-game lead intact with 12 to play. And it left 18 to play for the Cardinals, who still have three doubleheaders down the stretch because of all the games lost to their early season COVID-19 outbreak without a remaining day off.
It also finally put the Cubs ahead of the Cardinals in the loss column and puts the Cubs’ magic number for clinching the NL Central at 12 heading into Tuesday’s opener of a two-game series against Cleveland.
The highs and lows to watch with this week’s three up and three down for the Cubs:
1. The Cubs are riding their emotional high of this unprecedented, daunting season into the week after a 10-inning rush that included Saturday night’s impossible ninth-inning comeback against Brewers closer Josh Hader, followed by Alec Mills’ improbable no-hitter Sunday.
After a 13-3 start to the season, they were staring at a 17-inning scoreless streak and near-certainty they were about to fall to 13-18 since then and see their division lead shrink to two games over the Cards and three over the Brewers.
Until a one-out single by Javy Báez, pinch single by Rizzo and three-run homer by Jason Heyward ended weeks of malaise with the win of the season.
2. Cleveland rocks? These days they’re sinking like one. They’ve lost six straight, don’t have Cy Young candidate Shane Bieber (1.53 ERA) or Zach Plesac (2.20) going in the series, and the last time the Cubs saw Tuesday starter Carlos Carrasco, the right-hander didn’t get out of the fifth inning of a 7-2 Cubs win.
3. Easily overshadowed by Mills’ no-hitter was the fact that it was the sixth quality start in seven games for a rotation that had been struggling for a month — which at least suggest some options for a playoff rotation after Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks.
After producing 12 quality starts and a 2.55 collective ERA during the opening 13-3 run, an already depth-challenged group suffered injuries and slumps, and produced just seven quality starts and a 5.65 ERA over the next 25 games.
Jon Lester and Mills look in recent starts like they have righted themselves, and Tyler Chatwood (forearm) and José Quintana (lat) could be back from the injured list within days for a rotation that’s riding a 1.75 surge over its last seven starts.
Bonus pitching highlight: The bullpen has a 2.05 ERA and .181 opponents batting average (.541 OPS) in the last 18 games.
1. What’s Happ’ning to Ian?
When the Cubs beat the Cardinals 5-1 on Monday of last week, the Cubs’ MVP candidate doubled and walked three times from the leadoff spot, raising his MLB-leading OPS to 1.079.
But since then, Happ looks like a guy who most needed the day off the Cubs got after their weekend series in Milwaukee: 3-for-26 (.115) with 13 strikeouts in the last six games.
His struggles coincided with a stretch in which the Cubs were shut out twice in three games last week (and two outs Saturday from making it three out of four). With other big names in the lineup continuing to fight through season-long slumps, they obviously need the earlier version of Happ as they get closer to October.
2. Cleveland rocks on the mound — and so do the Twins and White Sox. The Cubs might miss the top of the Cleveland rotation, but that’s still a team that ranks second in the majors in ERA. In fact the Cubs face three of the top staffs in the majors in eight of their final 12 games with the Twins (No. 5) in town over the weekend and the Sox (No. 3) on the schedule for the final series of the year.
3. Somebody say Rizzo? As former All-Stars Kris Bryant and Javy Báez show recent signs of shaking off their season-long slumbers at the plate, the big lefty in the middle of the lineup has gone into his worst funk of the season since September began.
Rizzo’s just 7-for-51 (.137) with two extra-base hits (.412 OPS) and eight strikeouts in that span — including an 0-for-6 game with four strikeouts Sunday, when the Cubs scored 12 runs.
He had an .843 OPS until then.