It’s always just a little bit odd when a team clinches a division title or playoff spot when another team loses. Sure, you’re happy and you want to celebrate, and absolutely, it’s worth celebrating the Cubs’ first division title in eight years and second consecutive postseason berth, which occurred a few minutes before midnight Central time Thursday when the Cardinals lost to the Giants. But even manager Joe Maddon low-keyed it after the Cubs lost to the Brewers 5-4 Thursday evening:
#Cubs Maddon says he's going home and won't wait at Wrigley for outcome of STL vs SF game— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 16, 2016
And, that’s what a disappointed sellout crowd did as well, quietly filing out of Wrigley Field after the tough loss.
For a time, it looked like celebration was at hand. Addison Russell led off the second inning with a bloop single to left. And then this happened:
Jorge Soler’s two-run homer was a rocket. How much of a rocket, you ask?
Jorge Soler's HR was hit 114.1 MPH... Hardest HR by a @cubs player this year.— Daren Willman (@darenw) September 16, 2016
Well, as you can imagine, that got the crowd energized. Unfortunately, that energy lasted only a couple of innings. Keon Broxton led off the top of the fourth with a homer off Mike Montgomery. Two outs later, Hernan Perez hit what should have been a routine inning-ending ground ball to short, but Russell’s throw pulled Anthony Rizzo off first base. Domingo Santana doubled Perez to third and then Orlando Arcia yanked a ball just fair down the left-field line, scoring both runners and putting the Brewers ahead 3-2.
As you can imagine, that sucked most of the air out of Wrigley. And there weren’t many people hanging out on the streets outside, either, at least not on Waveland.
The Cubs got one run right back in the bottom of the inning. Jason Heyward doubled down the right-field line. Montgomery was the next hitter:
That was Montgomery’s first major-league hit and RBI. It seemed to settle down his pitching, somehow; he retired the next six batters he faced, three of them on ground balls to Kris Bryant in the sixth inning — and that sixth inning took just four pitches!
Had Montgomery’s batting-order spot not come up in the bottom of the sixth, Joe Maddon might have let him throw another inning, as he was cruising and had thrown just 85 pitches (59 strikes), by far his best outing as a Cubs starter. But with Miguel Montero on first base with a single, Joe opted to send Tommy La Stella to the plate to bat for Montgomery. TLS struck out to end the inning.
Props to Montgomery, incidentally. This was by far his best outing as a Cub and he walked only one. Walks have been his biggest issue and if he can harness his command, I think he can be a very good major-league starter.
Justin Grimm, who’d been so good for the last couple of months, wasn’t, in relief of Montgomery. A leadoff double and a one-out walk brought pinch-hitter Scooter Gennett to the plate. He doubled in both runners. Air, sucked out, again.
Kris Bryant singled with one out in the seventh and advanced to second on a ground out by Rizzo. With a 1-1 count on Ben Zobrist, Bryant got picked off [VIDEO] by Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado. Yikes.
Still, 5-3, not insurmountable, right? Joe Smith got through the eighth inning thanks in part to this:
Ryan Braun was called safe on the field, but you can see, as the review crew did, that Rizzo tagged him just before he got his hand back on first base. The crowd energized again, and even after Russell made another throwing error, something he’d never done before:
This is 1st time #Cubs Russell has been charged with 2 errors in one game— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 16, 2016
... the game went on to the bottom of the eighth still 5-3.
Zobrist, who’d been batting when Bryant was picked off, walked. Two outs later, Heyward doubled again, scoring Zobrist to make it 5-4. (It’s nice to see Heyward hitting again, after his road-trip slump. He’s 4-for-7 with two doubles and a walk in his last two games.) Montero walked and was replaced by pinch-runner Matt Szczur. With the crowd again energized, Willson Contreras batted for Smith. I had visions of Contreras’ first big-league at-bat back in June, also a pinch-hitting appearance, when he slammed a home run on the first major-league pitch he saw.
It wasn’t to be on this night. Contreras looked at strike three as Brewers closer Tyler Thornburg, who’d been called on in the eighth, threw him three straight curveballs.
Spencer Patton threw a scoreless ninth, helped in part by this nice running catch [VIDEO] by Dexter Fowler.
And the Cubs had come into the evening having won six previous games this year when they trailed entering the ninth inning. (That’s a lot, incidentally.) And the top of the order, so productive all year, was coming to the plate.
But Fowler was called out on strikes and Bryant grounded out. Rizzo walked, bringing more energy to the crowd, almost all of whom stayed to the end. Javier Baez was sent in to run for Rizzo. For a brief moment I thought Javy might do one of his Javy things and try to take second base, but he barely had time to think about it, as Zobrist grounded into a force play on the second pitch he saw to end the game.
So the Cubs are N.L. Central champions, anticlimactically. Maddon, as always, had the right words:
#Cubs Maddon after Thu game: "This is just the first step. We have much larger baseball fish to fry in our skillet"— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 16, 2016
He’s right, of course. Winning the Central Division is only the beginning of what we hope will be the best postseason run in decades, or longer. Step 2 will be clinching the National League’s best record, which will take a few more days. The Cubs’ magic number (over the Nationals) to accomplish that remained at 10 after Thursday’s action. The Nats aren’t likely to give the Cubs much help this weekend, as they are facing the Braves, against whom they are 14-2 this year. Also, this is likely to happen for Friday’s game at Wrigley:
Also expect a Sunday type lineup on Friday for #Cubs. That means most regulars will sit— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 16, 2016
The term “Sunday type lineup” is sort of old-fashioned; decades ago, managers might have rested their regulars on Sundays, but these days, rest like this can come on any day of the week. (Note that tweet was sent after Thursday’s game ended and before the Cardinals/Giants result was known.) Who knows, maybe the sub Cubs will muscle up and take one from the Brewers. And after that, I’d expect the regulars to play for a while, at least until the best record in the league is clinched.
Cubs walk watch: Five walks in this game brought the season total to 590, or 4.04 per game. Pace: 654, still just enough to break the team record of 650, set in 1975.
John Lackey will go for the Cubs in Friday afternoon’s contest. The Brewers will counter with Chase Anderson . There’s a chance of scattered storms; hopefully those will hold off until evening and they can get this one in, and end it more happily than Thursday’s disappointing affair.
Just remember: The best is yet to come!