ST. LOUIS — Put the champagne on ice, because it won’t be needed until the Chicago Cubs return to Wrigley Field later this week. The Cubs’ magic number to clinch the National League’s Central Division remained at three after a 4-2 loss Tuesday night to the team behind them, the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It’s inevitable at this point,” center fielder Dexter Fowler simply stated after the game.
With their division lead at 16 games, the question the last few days in the locker room has been about where, not when or if, they would clinch their first division title since 2008. Either the Cubs would clinch at Busch Stadium with a dramatic sweep of the Cardinals, or they would do it back at home in front of their own fans after Wednesday’s conclusion of a nine-game road trip. The task of sweeping a playoff contender on the road was always a tall one, so now they’re likely to pop champagne in Chicago. Tuesday’s starter, Jason Hammel, and the Cubs offense made sure of that.
“We had guys on base all night,” manager Joe Maddon lamented of the loss. “We had many opportunities to score, and we did not do it.”
The Cubs had the bases loaded twice early in the game and failed to score both times. Kris Bryant struck out in the second inning after Cardinals manager Mike Matheny used a quick hook on lefty starter Jaime Garcia, replacing him with hard-throwing righty Alex Reyes. The move proved fruitful as Reyes threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings, though he walked six. Three of those walks loaded the bases again in the fourth, but Jorge Soler flied out.
“They did the right thing at the right time,” Fowler said of Cardinals pitching.
Why is this important, other than for determining where the Cubs will clinch the division? For the same reason it was important during their loss Saturday at Houston. One way for a great team to lose unexpectedly in the playoffs is to come up short with that one hit when it’s needed most, that one hit they got plenty of times in Games 1 through 162, but for whatever reason escapes them in October.
Using the past four games as an example, the Cubs missed on chances Saturday and lost 2-1, then came out and pounded the ball Sunday, winning 9-5. They did enough Monday at the plate to take a low-scoring affair 4-1 before losing one of those Tuesday. In a best-of-five series, that means a 2-2 tie.
Of course, that presumes the Cubs are as focused now as they will be in October and that Maddon is playing the lineup he will then. Neither is probably true, but if we were to find a formula for a postseason upset, it most likely would not involve the Cubs’ defense or starting staff or even their bullpen. It’ll be that inopportune strikeout that gets them — as much as we can predict the unpredictable.
“You’re going to go through those ruts,” Fowler said. “It’s a matter of getting out of those as quickly as possible.”
The good news is that the Cubs are better equipped this season to survive a playoff series despite one bad game at the plate. After all, they can just outpitch their opponent, as they’ve done most of the year. That wasn’t the case Tuesday, when Hammel gave up a pair of two-run home runs. That’s a tough sell in the postseason.
“Seems like every time I give up a run it leaves the yard,” Hammel said. “I’d like to give up a double or something to drive in a run sometime.”
Hammel has given up two or more home runs in seven starts this season, the most by a Cubs pitcher since 2011, when Ryan Dempster did it seven times.
“I have to figure out how to get the ball on the ground,” he said.
Four runs is the very worst you can expect from the Cubs’ starting staff these days, and that’s from their No. 5 starter. You can expect better from their top guys, but even they will need a few runs to play with. One hit at two different times could have been the difference Tuesday. It might matter next month, but there’s no realistic slump that can deny the Cubs what they’ve been working for all season. The corks won’t get popped in St. Louis, but they will soon.
“It’s going to happen,” Fowler said. “It’s just a matter of when.”