Posted on September 28, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine
It was touch and go for a while, but the reigning world champions will be back in the playoffs to defend their title. With a 5-1 win over the Cardinals Wednesday night, the Chicago Cubs officially wrapped up the NL Central division crown. It is Chicago’s second straight division title. It’s also the first time the Cubs have reached the playoffs in three straight years since 1906 to 1908.
“We’ve created a culture here where it’s win or bust,” said Anthony Rizzo amidst the postgame celebration. “We’re not supposed to be here. I know on paper we are, but after a championship season, the numbers, the studies, the stats show we shouldn’t be here. People don’t do this. We’ve done it, and it feels good. And we’re in a good spot going into the postseason. We’re rolling.”
This year’s division title did not come as easy to the Cubs as last year when the team sprinted out of the gate and coasted to the division crown. The Brewers were viable challengers throughout the season and even held a lead over the Cubs at the all-star break. The Cardinals also became contenders with a late-season surge. But after a sluggish first half, the Cubs found their form the second half of the season, looking a lot more like the team that won the World Series last year.
“I think it’s the first time we’re in a real pennant race,” said Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. “It’s different. There’s a lot more intensity. There’s a lot more focus on September games than we’ve been used to.”
Aside from viable contenders within the division, the Cubs faced far more internal obstacles than they did a year ago. The team’s pitching staff was understandably tired after a deep October run. That led to some inconsistency the first half of the season, as well as injury. Most of Chicago’s key position players also fought through injury problems. But the Cubs found the depth they needed to overcome those problems and come out on top in the NL Central.
“We had a lot of things that were not easy about this year, starting with guys naturally being fatigued, but you also have the fact that every team in our division played well this year,” said Jason Heyward. “It’s one of those years when you have to do everything right to get it done. We had a lot of growing to do this year.”
After a little more adversity than they faced last season, the Cubs may be better prepared to enter the postseason than a year ago. The team also has a championship pedigree and knows what it takes to win games in October.
“I like to say they’re fearless,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon. “I don’t think they take anything for granted. I think we do like the bigger moment.”
Chicago’s efforts at a repeat will start with the NLDS against the Washington Nationals. The Cubs won just three of seven games against the Nationals this season. However, four of those games came prior to the all-star break before the Cubs hit their stride.
Washington will have home-field advantage during the five-game series. But the Nationals also have a history of faltering in the NLDS. Washington is also hoping that Bryce Harper can hit his stride after coming back from injury earlier this week. That could give the Cubs a slight edge over the Nationals.