CHICAGO – Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon simply shook his head in disbelief after his team’s latest victory, a 6-5 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday. It’s a rare moment when Maddon is at a loss for words, but when asked if he is surprised that his team has a commanding, 15-game lead in the National League Central as the calendar turns to September, Maddon stammered.
“Oh, yeah, c’mon,” he said with that head shake. “Absolutely. I would never have dreamt that. No, not at all. You could never imagine you’d have this kind of a lead at this particular point in the season.”
Sometimes dreams do come true, as the Cubs lowered their magic number to 16 while beating the Pirates for a mind-boggling 12th time in 15 contests this season. How does a team get to this point, with a franchise-record 22 wins in August in the process? It starts with pitching, always pitching.
“You can’t have an outstanding month like that without starting [pitching],” Maddon said. “You can’t. It’s impossible.”
The Cubs’ NL-leading 2.66 August ERA isn’t just about what’s happening on the mound, though. It’s also about what’s happening behind it.
“We’re spoiled with the defense we have,” pitcher Jason Hammel said. “We have two catch-of-the-year nominees.”
The first happened a few weeks ago, when Anthony Rizzo scaled the wall in foul territory to make a grab, but Addison Russell‘s diving stab near the foul line behind third base to end Wednesday’s seventh inning with the bases loaded might have topped it.
“I thought there was no way I was going to make that play,” Russell said of the Gregory Polanco popup. “Just got a good read on the ball. I anticipated him hitting it up the middle, but he hit it the other way. Pounced on it as quick as I can.”
Russell pumped his fist as he and third baseman Kris Bryant enjoyed the moment together. You get the feeling that those two will be enjoying many moments together as the left side of the Cubs’ young core. On Wednesday, the duo combined for three hits, three RBIs, three runs scored and a home run, Bryant’s 36th. Russell drove in his 85th and 86th runs of the season and Bryant his 90th. Then there was the defense. Russell had his stellar play, and Bryant made three good ones of his own in the first three innings.
“This team is going to be really good for a long time,” Hammel said in reference, in part, to Bryant and Russell. “They continue to dazzle — can’t say surprise because we’ve come to expect all these great plays and the big knocks they’re driving in. We’re witnessing greatness with a lot of young kids right now.”
Russell and Bryant have combined for 55 home runs and 176 runs driven in, and they’re just 22 and 24 years old, respectively. Maybe the most telling or important moment between the two was the least exciting one of the night. With Rizzo on third base and one out in the seventh inning, Russell hit a fly ball to right-center to bring home the Cubs’ sixth run. That’s the type of baseball that will be needed come October … along with stellar defense, of course.
“He just moved the baseball,” Maddon said. “That’s what we need to get done in those moments. He’s been amazing.”
Maddon raved about Bryant and Russell for a few minutes longer, then remembered that there were other heroes in August. Even without two of their top relievers, the Cubs thrived. That might have surprised the manager the most.
“I would never have guessed that,” Maddon stated. “You talk about that month and say [Pedro] Strop … and [Hector] Rondon were unavailable for most of it, and you did that well? That’s the part that would not have made any sense to me whatsoever.”
Maddon can’t be alone in that regard as the Cubs’ dream season enters its final month, with the countdown to clinching taking center stage.