A mere nine games remain in the regular season for a young Chicago Cubs team on the cusp of a playoff berth for the first time in seven seasons, its magic number for playoff consideration stands at 3 — Pos, Dave and Mase would be proud, but they wouldn’t be alone.
Slow and steady has been proven to win a race or two. In spite of the large scale focus in recent months of a possible leap-frog of the Pittsburgh Pirates to secure home field advantage for a win-or-go-home Wild Card play-in game, by staying secure in their own development as a young but overly-talented squad, the Cubbies are in as good a position as they can be to not only surpass the competitive Bucs, but to invade the routine October reign that blood rivals St. Louis holds over the National League.
Because they’re the Cardinals and because they have the best record in baseball this season and because National League Championship Series games have been played in the Lou in nine of the last 15 seasons (and in each of the last four seasons), all roads out the NL lead directly thru that mid-sized town on the Mississippi River.
And so… the Hunt for Red October is officially on and popping. The National League Central has played top billing in baseball all year long as its most competitive division with the best three records in the senior circuit. Any final short-comings by the Cubs should be kept in this proper context.
This is a Cubs team as emboldened as it is youthful, though, and any type of early exit is not in their plans. For all the “Back To The Future,” “2015 is the year” references that have flirted with fans’ imaginations, the pre-season proclamations by one Anthony Rizzo have largely flown under the radar.
It made sense to no one in the know back in January that anyone outside of the Cardinals would win the Central (maybe Pittsburgh had a chance) and most of this season affirmed such an opinion, with the Cards holding a double-digit division lead over the North Siders.
But in the past month plus a lot has changed and that hefty cushion maintained by the Cardinals since April has settled down to a respectable but hardly dominant 4 games over the consistent Pirates. More revealing — St. Louis’s meek 3-6 record against Chicago since July 7th.
The Cubs’ 7-4 win that day ended a five-game losing streak to the Cards and brought their record to a pleasant 45-37. After a highly-competitive 4-3 loss to St. Louis on Sunday, the Cubs sat at 87-62. This morning, at 89-62, they hold the third best record in baseball, a playoff spot by 9.5 games ahead of the next competitor and that spot could officially be theirs by the end of play today.
The Cubs have had two exceptional months to close out this highly-unexpected postseason run, they included themselves with all sincerity into an epic dog-fight for positioning within the National League, as much sincerity as Rizzo mustered up to earn headlines this past winter. Back then that kind of feeling couldn’t be translated to a long-suffering fan base, but now we couldn’t be more on the same page.
Success hasn’t come with any regularity for the Cubs in the time since Theo Epstein took the reigns on baseball operations, it hasn’t really come at all, but now its here. The 2015 season not only bears the mark of success, though, it marks the largest and most significant shift in the Cubs culture maybe ever, with each player on the roster from top to bottom buying into new manager Joe Maddon’s personal swagger and his “Respect 90” mentality.
Can you name another modern-era manager in baseball who regularly quotes Gandhi before games, who skews normal thinking by batting his pitcher eighth during games, who decompresses with a $150+ bottles of Opus One Bordeaux Cabernet after games? That is the stuff of managerial legend, and with a losing legacy of 100+ years in the hole, the Cubs need a legend to lead themselves to the promise land.
Still, it will take more than a good bottle of red and some slick talk to push all the right buttons — players have to respond and follow suit, and no one has done that better than The Great and Powerful Riz.’ Despite some damn good numbers that alone should have Rizzo harboring MVP nominations, it’s been his approach to the day-in and day-out grit this season that makes Rizzo’s efforts stand out and should separate him from the rest of the pack in MVP considerations.
To watch The Riz’ work at the plate is like taking a trip in the throw-back machine, circa the late 1990’s, to see the likes of Barry Bonds intimidating pitching from the left-hand side of the box. It takes brass stones the size of softballs to do what Rizzo’s done this year, especially in a division featuring the likes of Aroldis Chapman beaming down with an effectively wild 102 miles-per-hour fastball.
Rizzo’s approach to setting the tone and not backing down to righties and lefties cannot go understated. With two strikes on him, Rizzo has made his bread and butter this season by shifting into The Riz’ – rocking his hips in a soft porn-like gesticulation, while choking up on the bat and consistently lacing balls back up the middle of the field.
Between at-bats, when not tomahawking balls all over the field, his sharing orange slices with the entire dugout is the type of thing that makes Rizzo’s MVP-type season memorable and its the kind of quirky in-the-moment team building that shows a star player becoming more simpatico with his influential skipper.
When a team’s star takes on such an approach, complimentary players MUST follow suit. less their average results and more-expected failures become exacerbated. Rizzo’s type of leadership makes the job of the hitting coach that much easier, and helps plant seeds in others (see the mid-season plate adjustments of Addison Russell and Starlin Castro and their subsequent results for further proof).
Another Cy For The Chi
Thanks to search engine optimization, a Googling of Jake Arrieta’s name, would likely pair up the Cubs’ newest pitching ace with descriptive words like “dominant,” “elite” and “filthy” in entries on the first page. It’s nothing less than Arrieta’s tenacity and his superlative efforts on the mound that has allowed dreams of October success seem not so silly for Cubs faithful only months after the dominant theme was that of a year in transition.
Back in April it was “let’s wait until next year,” but with a twist…the Cubs did, after all, bring in the prize free-agent catch among the pitchers in the Majors, but Lester has had an almost even share of highs, lows and a bout of the first base yips in his first season in Chicago.
In his third year pitching at Wrigley, Arrieta’s supreme control and periodic dominance has played the role of counter-balance and stopper, mowing down batters and dominating frames whenever his team is most of need. Arrieta’s swagger may also go unnoticed, but flexing big boy muscles and going shirt-less underneath the jersey (a mainstay during the Cubs’ stay-hot August) has Jake’s name written all over it. A legend is being born.
What can’t go unnoticed is Arrieta’s contract status, as he has one of the most club-friendly contracts in all of baseball. The 29-year old is currently making $3.6 million this year, to put that number in perspective, the Cubs paid a grossly under-performing Edwin Jackson $5 million for 2.5 months of service, and additionally ate roughly twice Arrieta’s salary when the club cut bait with Jackson during mid-season.
Lets call Arrieta’s current contract status an accounting mistake that must be corrected. With two more years before a possible booming free agency period for him and a looming arbitration-eligible year after this season, what better way to reward the franchise’s newest 20-game winner and quash any looming drama with his pitbull agent Scott Boras than to hand Arrieta a nice, crisp kite with about seven zero’s attached and a signature line to sign on September 30th – one day before embarking on his first substantive trek into October baseball.
Arrieta’s domination and emergence as an ace this year puts Arrieta in an arms race with perennial Cy Young finalist, Zack Greinke of the Dodgers. While Greinke’s numbers are mere percentage points better than Arrieta’s, Chicago’s ace (20 wins) has L.A.’s ace (18 wins) faded slightly in the most important category.
With the wild card game set to make or break the Cubs fate this season, it makes the most sense to lead with your most effective pitcher to get you in the dance so you can best believe it’ll be Arrieta with the ball in his hand as the Cubs makes the October push, giving him another all-important showcase game to cement his case as being the best NL pitcher of 2015.
In addition to the leading forces outlined so far, several other factors have played into the favor of the Cubs this season, accelerating their maturity into contendership: a true table-setter in Dexter Fowler, who has gotten the offensive engine churning by posting ridiculous second half batting splits; a plethora of talent playing their first meaningful games on the Major League level — led by Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell — who’ve all sought strength in each other in order to contribute; a bullpen by committee approach that has been successful more times than not and an effective stadium renovation that has helped assimilate the Friendly Confines into the 21st century standards of stadium design while still restoring Wrigley’s historically unique home field advantage with packed, energetic houses cheering them on.
No one decision this year has been more important than the next, they’ve all worked in concert incredibly well, fueled in the end by an insatiable appetite for a return to October success.
With the proper leadership in place and the talent to match, now is the time to do away with all curses and cardiac Cubby occurrences. In the end, its been a simple, better approach that has placed the 2015 Cubs one game away from #Respect90 and only days away from the hunt to end all hunts. Game on!
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; Sean Terry is a co-founder of We Are Regal Radio and host of WARR’s The Varsity Show