Chicago Cubs

Cubs see division lead beginning to disappear: 'Are you in or are you out?'

Cubs see division lead beginning to disappear: 'Are you in or are you out?'

“What’s happened?” Jason Heyward said, repeating back part of a reporter’s question. “Nothing happened. Baseball happened.”

It was only fitting that “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk threw out the first pitch and led the seventh-inning stretch on Sunday afternoon at Wrigley Field. Maybe the Cubs aren’t quite that desperate – and would never admit it even if they were in crisis mode – but the Milwaukee Brewers had only one realistic way to stay relevant in the National League Central race: Sweep the defending World Series champs.

Mission accomplished for the upstart Brewers team the Cubs allowed to hang around into September and gain more and more confidence. The flip-flopping St. Louis Cardinals – sellers one day, buyers in another deal, holding auditions for the future while trying to compete now – have also closed to within two games of first place.

The Bears losing their opener to the Atlanta Falcons in the final seconds at Soldier Field – and all the Monday morning quarterbacking – will give the Cubs some cover during their day off. But what could have been a four-game lead over the Brewers disappeared with a 3-1 loss in front of 40,113.

“If you go over there and ask that clubhouse what happened to them when they got swept by Cincinnati (last week), it’s the way the game goes,” said Heyward, the $184 million Gold Glove outfielder with a .259 batting average who is always available at his locker to answer questions.

“I’m not saying, ‘Oh, OK, so what,’ but that’s just a part of the game. Teams are going to pitch well sometimes. Sometimes, you’re not going to hit well. Sometimes, balls are going to go at people. Sometimes, (that’s) going to be what it is.”

The Cubs are getting what they deserve for all their inconsistencies – a stressful finish where 11 of their last 19 games are against either Milwaukee or St. Louis. The Cubs also have enough of an off-the-field reputation when it comes to rainouts and game times that the Brewers could make themselves feel slighted and turn those petty behind-the-scenes disputes into part of the narrative.

“We’ve been in a tight race all year,” rookie Ian Happ said. “Just keep playing good baseball and see where it shakes out at the end.”

The Brewers lined up their top three starters – Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies – and limited the Cubs to three runs total in 27 innings. The first point the Cubs led all weekend came during Sunday’s second inning, when No. 8 hitter/backup catcher Rene Rivera lifted what looked like a routine flyball to right field. It carried over the head of Hernan Perez, who stuck out his glove and watched the ball bounce away for a questionable RBI double.   

“They got us,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We were just unable to string together any kind of hits, and then our power’s been negated a bit.

“If you look around baseball, it happens to every team at some point. It’s contagious to hit as well as it is contagious to not hit. You got to just keep working your way through it. It’s going to come back to us. We’re going to start hitting again.”

After pinch-hitter Alex Avila struck out swinging at All-Star closer Corey Knebel’s 97-mph fastball to leave Heyward stranded at second base and secure the sweep, the Cubs played reggae music in their clubhouse and looked forward to a day off after playing 20 games in 20 days – and ahead to what will ultimately define their season.

“You say ‘gave up three games,’ whatever,” Heyward said. “They had a great series. That’s that.

“That’s the name of the game right now – find a way to get it done. Nobody’s going to care at the end of the year. It’s just: ‘Are you in or are you not?’ And no doubt that all the teams right now in our division that still have a chance are doing the best we can to get in.

“These games are big, of course, but they’re over with.”

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

Kris Bryant knocks out Brewers and knows what big-game experience means for Cubs

MILWAUKEE – Teammates swarmed Kris Bryant in Miller Park’s visiting dugout late Thursday night, flinging sunflower seeds and forming a mosh pit around the National League’s reigning MVP.

Are you not entertained? The Cubs haven’t always played with this urgency or made it easy while nursing a World Series hangover. But they can feel it now, how close they are to October and how much they learned last year while making history.

It’s too early to pop champagne bottles, but the Cubs won a huge swing game in the NL Central race, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in the 10th inning when Bryant blasted Oliver Drake’s 92-mph fastball off a beam underneath the gigantic video board.

The Cubs watched it ricochet back onto the right-center field grass for a go-ahead two-run homer, bumping up the division lead to 4.5 games while cutting the magic number to clinch the division down to six.

After a head-spinning 5-3 victory that lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes and ended at 11:08 p.m., Bryant didn’t sound surprised or overexcited, the same way he didn’t overreact when the Cubs struggled to gain traction before the All-Star break and the Brewers swept the defending World Series champs two weekends ago at Wrigley Field.       

“We’ve done that so many times,” Bryant said. “We’ve had a nice run with that. I guess it is experience. The heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.”

So did the Brewers pushing their bullpen so hard this week trying to catch up that Cubs manager Joe Maddon would have to admit “their A-listers were not available,” meaning Corey Knebel, Anthony Swarzak and Josh Hader. Classic response from Bryant, who has 28 homers and likes to think of pitchers as nameless, faceless opponents: “I didn’t find out their top three guys were down until after the game was over.”

Maybe that changes the ninth-inning rally against Jeremy Jeffress where Ian Happ sprinted for a “Respect 90” single and scored the game-tying run when Javier Baez delivered a two-out, two-strike single up the middle. But the Cubs are in their element now, playing games that matter, not what-if.

“I just think we like loud,” Maddon said. “I think we’re a little bit like adrenaline junkies with the fact we’re used to 40,000 people a night.”

Just look at the stone face Wade Davis made in the ninth inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Domingo Santana swinging at an elevated 95-mph fastball and forcing Orlando Arcia to chop a 3-2 pitch back to the mound. The All-Star closer who’s 32-for-32 in save chances went back out for the 10th inning and struck out the side to notch the win. That is a five-out playbook Maddon can use in October.

“You definitely feel it,” Davis said of the playoff atmosphere in a road stadium filled with Cubs fans. “It’s a lot easier to get up for the moment itself instead of having to create it yourself. You feel that.”

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

As Cubs move closer to division title, Jake Arrieta looks ready for October

MILWAUKEE – This was the type of game Jake Arrieta visualizes, a loud atmosphere with 35,114 fans on their feet and an opponent that really doesn’t like the Cubs at all.

This one would ultimately be out of his hands, lasting 10 innings and almost 4 hours on Thursday night at Miller Park, but Arrieta looked like a Game 1 starter as the Cubs roared back for a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Those playoff plans are coming into focus, the magic number to win the National League Central title down to six and Arrieta managing the Grade 1 right hamstring strain that has been one of the biggest question marks hanging over the defending World Series champs.

“It’s just good to be back out there,” Arrieta said. “These are big games, and I want to be a part of as many as I can, especially to try and clinch the division as quick as possible and then kind of line things up for us in October. But we got to get there first.”

Arrieta threw his first real pitch in 18 days at 7:16 p.m., firing a 92-mph fastball toward Brewers leadoff guy Eric Sogard and giving the Cubs a shot of adrenaline. That always wears off, but the Cubs are a different team when Arrieta sticks his chest out and triggers his perfect posture into a crossfire delivery.

Arrieta looked sharp in his first real action since Labor Day, even as his five-inning, 71-pitch limit exposed how fragile this pitching staff might be right now. If it’s not Jon Lester laboring at the top of the rotation, it’s the softer spots in the middle of the bullpen, or questions about how much wear and tear the Cubs can take after a deep playoff run in 2015 and last year’s World Series madness stretched into early November. 

But Arrieta basically picked up where he left off as the NL pitcher of the month for August, realigning his unique mechanics and generating enough power from his right leg, restarting the momentum in a second half where he’s shown the flashes of dominance you saw during his 2015 Cy Young Award season. 

Arrieta exited this game with a 2-1 lead – before it spun out of control – and passed one test by hustling to cover first base to complete an inning-ending 3-6-1 double play in the fifth. He walked just one of the 20 hitters he faced and could really only regret one pitch in the fourth inning, the 92-mph fastball Domingo Santana drilled off the batter’s eye in center field.

“I felt OK,” Arrieta said. “I can tell that something happened. I think it’s just the residual feeling of something like a hamstring strain. But no pain, really no discomfort. That’s a good sign.

“Tomorrow is the biggest indicator moving forward of how we’ll be able to approach this. I don’t see any reason that I won’t feel good tomorrow.”

Arrieta is scheduled to make two more regular-season starts, but this dramatic comeback means the Cubs might be able to treat those as controlled experiments instead of must-win situations.

“Just an incredible baseball game,” Arrieta said. “This is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this, in a division like the NL Central, where there’s a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here over the next few days, we get a couple steps closer.”