CHICAGO — The Cubs entered Thursday night’s game against the Brewers with two avenues to their first NL Central title since 2008. The first, of course, was to follow the script and beat the Brewers, unleashing the first of what Cubs fans hope are many celebrations this fall. The second, should the story take a turn and they lose to the Brewers, was for the Giants to beat the Cardinals in the opening game of a huge four-game series between the NL Wild Card contenders in San Francisco.
After the Cubs fell to the Brewers 5–4, the first avenue closed. Joe Maddon said in his postgame interview that he told his players to go home, rather than hanging around the clubhouse to see if the Giants could provide the final blow. When asked if they’d actually listen to him, Maddon’s tune changed.
“I have no idea, but I am. That’s the plan,” Maddon said.
The Giants did indeed provide that final blow, riding a complete game from Johnny Cueto to beat the Cardinals, 6–2. When the Cubs officially became 2016 NL Central champions, the 41,000 who turned out hoping to be part of the celebration were long gone. Reporters and cleanup crew were the only people surely left in the stadium, though it’s likely a few players were still in the lavish clubhouse, despite their manager’s orders.
As expected, the Cubs weren’t taking it too hard, despite an obvious desire to give the fans an opportunity to celebrate one of the best regular seasons in the franchise’s history.
“Nothing’s a lock in our game,” Maddon said. “It would have been wonderful to do that with the fans right there, but that’s part of the uncontrollable nature of our game.”
It has long been a question of when—not if—the Cubs would win the NL Central. They opened the season as World Series favorites, and when they got off to a 25–6 start, it was essentially impossible to find anyone who believed they wouldn’t be winning their first division title in eight years. That is worth celebrating but it’s merely the first step toward what they plan on being a long postseason run. If all goes according to plan. they’ll have three more celebrations before packing it in for the winter.
“Pragmatically let’s do this, let’s move it along and let’s get ready for the next step,” Maddon said. “We have much larger baseball fish to fry in our skillets.”
When the next set of 41,000 fans show up at Wrigley Field on Friday, the game is likely to have the feel of a late spring training game. The Cubs still have something to play for—their magic number for clinching home-field advantage throughout the NL postseason sits at 11—but MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, as well as other regulars like Russell, Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler, could get the day off. Maddon insisted to reporters they would “enjoy tomorrow’s lineup.”
Make no mistake, though, there will be a party after the game. Assuming whatever lineup Maddon trots out there can get a win, of course.
“We celebrate after every win,” Jason Heyward said. “When we lose we don’t celebrate. Tomorrow’s tomorrow, another day.”
It’s likely everyone in the organization already knows the Cubs are division champions in 2016. Even though they realize the next season, the one that houses their true ambitions, is just beginning, a regular season this good is worth venerating.
“To some it might be anti-climactic, but we’ve already got 93 [wins]. That’s not a bad season,” Maddon said. “However we get this accomplished I’ll take it.”