Summer turned to autumn in Chicago and St. Louis and around the Midwest Wednesday, with temperatures falling into the 60s and 70s from the unseasonable 90s that had taken over for the last week or so, making September feel more like July.
Wednesday night in St. Louis, the Cubs made September feel a bit like October with a convincing 5-1 win over the Cardinals that made them National League Central champions for the second straight year and punched their ticket to the fall tournament that could, we hope, result in another title about five weeks from now.
John Lackey, who most assuredly has been in this situation before, pitched magnificently in what could be his final start for the Cubs. A walk and a pair of singles in the second inning gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead, but those baserunners and one other walk were the only ones Lackey allowed in six strong innings. From Lackey’s close friend Jon Lester:
#Cubs Lester on Lackey: "It's vintage Lack, vintage Lack. He never gives in."— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 28, 2017
Michael Wacha, though, was just a bit better than Lackey through six inning. Jon Jay led off the game with a single and one out later, Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch. (Really, Cardinals? C’mon. Stop playing that game.) Jay singled again in the third. Those were the only baserunners off Wacha through six innings and the game was flying along, with the hint that the one Cardinals run might win it and force the Cubs to wait for the Brewers to lose (they did, eventually) to clinch the title.
All of that changed to the Cubs’ favor in the seventh inning. As is the case for many starting pitchers, Wacha struggles the third time through the batting order (including Wednesday: .196/.250/.320 for the first time through, .307/.364/.452 the second time and .331/.396/.504 the third time).
It was stunning how quickly it happened. Ben Zobrist and Rizzo singled leading off the seventh. Addison Russell was next:
3-run homer for Addison Russell! pic.twitter.com/aWABQKnbGs— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) September 28, 2017
Russell’s three-run homer wasn’t hit as hard nor as far as some:
And thus just 11 pitches into the seventh inning, the Cubs had a two-run lead. Javier Baez and Jason Heyward followed with doubles for another run, and after Wacha walked Rene Rivera, Mike Matheny trudged to the mound with the step of a man who knows he’s going to have a lot of free time beginning next week. Matt Bowman entered. Here’s what happened to Bowman’s third pitch to pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella, batting for Lackey:
For TLS, that was his ninth pinch hit of the year. Along with 10 walks, that gives him a .300/.400/.433 mark as a pinch-hitter and a .286/.393/.491 line overall. I can’t say enough about the hard work he’s put in and what a valuable member of this team he has become. Credit to TLS and everyone in the organization who’s helped him get to this place. He’ll be a key member of this year’s postseason roster.
Now it’s 5-1 and though there are still nine outs to record, Cubs fans (and players, too, you can see how excited they are in the dugout) are preparing for celebration.
Truth be told, Lackey probably could have gone another inning, but that’s a minor quibble. Pedro Strop threw a 1-2-3 seventh with a pair of strikeouts. Hector Rondon allowed a single, but retired the other two hitters he faced in the eighth. That could be a huge boost to the Cubs’ chances in the postseason, if Rondon can come back to his previous good form. The Cubs could use another reliable reliever.
Brian Duensing was summoned to face lefthanded pinch-hitter Luke Voit, and Voit singled, so Carl Edwards Jr. entered the game. He allowed another hit, but then got Dexter Fowler to fly to right to end the eighth inning.
It would have been somewhat poetic to have Fowler make the last out in a Cubs division clincher against the Cardinals, but poetry was not what the baseball gods had in mind on this night.
Wade Davis entered in a non-save situation for the final three outs. He gave up a two-out double to Paul DeJong, and then:
Ladies and gentlemen, here's the out that sealed the division for second straight year! pic.twitter.com/eneIdHe0PY— Cubs Talk (@CSNCubs) September 28, 2017
The on-field celebration was festive, but not over-the-top. Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts was spotted in the stands, along with thousands of Cubs fans. Wish I could have stayed; instead, I celebrated quietly at home. You know the old saying: “Act like you’ve been there before.” And the Cubs certainly have; this is, as you have surely heard, the first time the franchise has been in the postseason three straight years since 1906-07-08. Back then it led to the last two of those years being World Series-winning seasons. Perhaps this one, despite its tribulations, injuries and the rough first half, will echo those long-ago Cubs. From Theo Epstein:
#Cubs Theo: We want to be identified as one of those teams that you expect to see on the TV in October ... 1/2— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 28, 2017
"... when you sit down in your easy chair to watch baseball. I think we're well on our way." #Cubs Theo 2/2— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) September 28, 2017
Theo: "Our guys love adrenaline. They love big games. They love competition at the highest level. It’s an opportunity to make some history.”— Patrick Mooney (@CSNMooney) September 28, 2017
Got to agree with Theo here. Despite the first half of this season, when the Cubs at times looked like a team that belonged nowhere near a pennant race, they are now 46-24 since the All-Star break. That’s the best record in the National League in that span, three games better than the Nationals and 4½ better than the Dodgers, and second only to the Indians, possessors of that amazing 22-game winning streak.
There is a bit of business still remaining for your 2017 N.L. Central champion Cubs. They will complete their series with the Cardinals (against whom they are now 13-5 this year) Thursday night before returning home to face the Cincinnati Reds in the final Wrigley Field regular-season series of this year, and those games ought to be festive and fun. In fact, since Cubs players likely celebrated long into the night, what I’m hoping happens is that regulars like Rizzo, Russell, Baez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras and others get put on a plane during the day Thursday and sent back to Chicago so they can rest up and play Friday in front of the home crowd. Those guys aren’t likely going to play in Thursday’s night game anyway, so why not get them some rest in their own beds instead of arriving at 1 a.m.?
That’s not a big deal, though, and I surely understand if those players would rather stick with their teammates in St. Louis for Thursday night’s “hangover game.”
Congratulations to the Cubs players, coaching staff, baseball management and the entire organization for putting together yet another regular season of wins and great memories for us. Hopefully, there are another five weeks’ worth of great baseball and Cubs victories for everyone. It will begin a week from Friday in Washington, as the division series matchup with the Nationals, the one that’s been anticipated for months, begins. A few comments from Cubs players via Twitter:
Blessed to be part of a special group of guys and a special Organization— Jon Jay 2Js (@jonjayU) September 28, 2017
Fly The W… https://t.co/B3qqoZ6NvD
And from the Cubs family:
I’ll have a post later this morning (10 a.m. CT), as promised, with some thoughts about who’s going to be on the postseason roster.
In the meantime, those handful of regular-season games remain. Thursday night in St. Louis, Kyle Hendricks takes the mound for the Cubs and Lance Lynn for the Cardinals. Game time is 6:15 p.m. CT.