Jose Quintana

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

10 reasons for optimism as Cubs enter the final two weeks of 2017 season

As the Cubs begin their final day off of the regular season, they ride into the last two weeks of 2017 on a serious high.

The Cubs played 20 games in 20 days before their off-day a week ago, but since then, they've won six straight and are a season-high 17 games over .500. They have a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central and a six-game jump over the St. Louis Cardinals.

That's quite a swing of events after all the panic skirting through the Cubs fanbase at this time last week following a sweep at the hands of the Brewers.

"We're definitely playing at the highest level of mental energy we've played with all year, period," Joe Maddon said Sunday following the Cubs' sweep of the Cardinals. "It's coming at the right time."

I'll say.

The Cubs entered the weekend series with the Cardinals needing a strong showing and turned in an absolutely dominating performance instead.

They're now 11-4 against the Cardinals in 2017, the best record since 2007 against their in-division rivals.

Here are 10 reasons Cubs fans have to count their blessings before the final road trip of the year:

1. Post All-Star Break stars

The Cubs have been on a roll since the All-Star Break, going 40-21 with a +106 run differential:

Which is the norm under Maddon in Chicago, as the Cubs have gone 140-69 in the season's second half over the last three years:

2. The Windy City

Wade Davis is still a perfect 31-for-31 in save chances, but Sunday may have been his closest call yet.

Dexter Fowler — who already homered earlier in the game to account for all three of St. Louis' runs — drove Davis' last pitch into deep center field, causing Davis and Cubs fans everywhere to react in anguish.

But the wind blew it back into play and into the waiting glove of Leonys Martin. 

"I thought it was going to the scoreboard," Davis joked after the game.

Instead of a go-ahead homer, it was the final out and the Cubs were owners of a three-game streak.

3. Starting staff

Jose Quintana made one mistake Sunday, a three-run shot to Fowler in the sixth inning. 

The Cubs' big summer acquisition was one out away from another quality start, but he was also the victim of some shoddy fielding behind him. Kris Bryant made an error and Kyle Schwarber failed to catch a flyball a few batters before Fowler's shot.

Quintana acknowledged he saw Kyle Hendricks' gem Saturday and wanted to go out and deliver his own strong outing.

The Cubs' starters are feeding off each other in a positive way at just the right time.

"We're competing at a pretty good level [as a team]," Davis said. "Our starters have really been carrying us the last 4-5 games. That's really been a big deal."

4. Solidfying the bullpen

The bullpen accounted for nine innings against the Cardinals and did not allow a run. 

Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. appeared in all three games, teaming with Pedro Strop (two appearances) to get 21 outs combined. 

Even Justin Wilson got into the mix, picking up a big strikeout in the only batter he faced Friday, helping swing the momentum in the Cubs' favor. 

This is the time of the year where the bullpen earns their money and the Cubs will need to rely on Davis and Co. heavily with eight games remaining still against the Brewers and Cardinals.

The day off Monday helps add another opportunity for rest for Hector Rondon (elbow) and Koji Uehara (knee, back). 

5. Regaining health

Even with Rondon and Uehara leaving the bullpen a little short, the Cubs have gotten great reports on frontline starter Jake Arrieta, who threw a 42-pitch bullpen Saturday and reportedly felt "grrreat." There is no word yet on when Arrieta will start, but it's possible the Cubs get him back early on this road trip.

Addison Russell, meanwhile, is back in a big way. He reached in all five plate appearances over the weekend, hitting a pinch-hit homer Saturday and collecting a single and three walks Sunday.

Willson Contreras is also showing no ill effects after missing about a month with a hamstring injury. He is hitting .444 with a 1.111 OPS in five games since returning from the DL and Contreras catcher served his one-game suspension Sunday, so he'll be ready to roll from Game 1 of the road trip.

6. Addison's back

Not only is Russell back, but he's already at the top of his game. 

With several slick defensive plays over the weekend, Russell also has not made an out at the plate since Aug. 2, the last game he played before landing on the disabled list with a foot injury. 

"Everything he's doing is looking good," Maddon said. "Great at-bats, no expanding of the zone. A lot like Contreras. Willy did the same thing coming back; he did not expand the strike zone. Addison played really well."

Russell's return also allows for a break for Javy Baez, who has had to play nearly every inning over the last six weeks. And when the two young infielders play at once, the Cubs have a pair of elite level defenders up the middle of the field.

The weekend served as a reminder to the baseball world how much the Cubs have missed Russell's presence this season and with two weeks left, his return to form couldn't have come at a better time.

7. Cardinals faltering

The Cardinals have had several moments over the course of the season where they looked down and out but they were simply overmatched in the three-game set at Wrigley Field. They threw their three best starting pitchers — Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha — and still couldn't pull out a victory in a crucial series.

The Cardinals are still within striking distance at six games back in the division and they host the Cubs for four games next week, but with just 13 games remaining on the schedule, time is fast running out for the Redbirds.

8. Their fate is in their own hands

The Cubs don't have to do too much scoreboard watching. They constantly talk about how their main focus is taking care of their own business and if they do so in the final two weeks, they'll have accomplished their first 2017 goal: Make the playoffs.

The Cubs don't have to rely on anybody else for their fate and can put away the Brewers next week with a strong showing (and then that four-game set in St. Louis immediately following). 

9. All hands on deck

The Cubs got 19 players in both Friday and Sunday's games and played 15 different guys Saturday as Maddon didn't hesitate to use his full complement of weapons with the expanded September rosters.

Maddon loves when a lot of guys get involved because it gives them all a feeling of "ownership" in the victories.

The Cubs have remarkable depth on their roster and there are still questions that have to be answered before any sort of postseason roster (assuming they make it) can be constructed. These last few weeks are giving Maddon and Co. a glimpse of what everybody can do.

10. State of the offense

The Cubs lineup has been relentless over the last week, scoring 55 runs in six games. None of the Cardinals' top three starters could make it out of the sixth inning, with Lynn managing to get just 12 outs Sunday.

The Cubs now lead the NL in runs scored and any questions doubters had about their ability to score runs off championship-caliber pitching have been put to rest for at least a little while.

Cubs essentially ruling out Jake Arrieta for Cardinals showdown

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USA TODAY

Cubs essentially ruling out Jake Arrieta for Cardinals showdown

Jake Arrieta will have to wait a little longer to put the Cubs on his back once again.

Arrieta threw from flat ground for the second time Tuesday and while he felt good recovering from an injured hamstring, the Cubs have yet to schedule an official bullpen for their dynamic veteran right-hander.

That means Cubs fans shouldn't expect Arrieta to get the ball in the all-important showdown with the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field this weekend.

"There's still some time involved here," Joe Maddon said.

The Cubs woke up Tuesday morning clinging to a two-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central and up 2.5 games on the Milwaukee Brewers, who just came into Wrigleyville last weekend and swept the defending champs.

The Cubs are currently tossing their three southpaws (Jose Quintana, Jon Lester, Mike Montgomery) against the New York Mets this week and John Lackey is penciled in for Friday's opener against the Cardinals. After that, the Cubs rotation has not yet been announced, though Kyle Hendricks will certainly slot in either Saturday or Sunday.

That led to a reporter wondering aloud during Maddon's pregame session Tuesday if Arrieta could possibly return for the weekend.

But it's a tricky situation given this is Arrieta's back leg, where he pushes off the mound to start his motion toward homeplate. And the Cubs want him to throw a full bullpen first and since that wasn't even scheduled yet on Tuesday, the likelihood of Arrieta pitching this weekend is pretty slim.

"I don't know," Maddon said. "We're running out of time for this time [through the rotation]. So maybe the next time through. I really don't know.

"In my mind's eye, I'm playing it like he won't. I think you have to do that first of all. And then if he can, wonderful."

The 2015 NL Cy Young winner wasn't quite turning in another superhuman second half for the Cubs when he went down with a hamstring injury last week in Pittsburgh, but he was in the midst of a dominant stretch. From the All-Star Break until he limped off the mound against the Pirates Sept. 4, Arrieta had gone 6-2 with a 1.98 ERA in 10 starts.

Arrieta's injury put the Cubs in a hole in that one game in Pittsburgh as he lasted just 2.1 innings in a game they were eventually routed 12-0. Had he not gotten injured, Arrieta would've been slated to start against the Brewers last weekend and on track to get the ball against the Cardinals this coming weekend.

In his stead, Montgomery will continue to find an opportunity in the starting rotation. 

But even if Arrieta can return shortly after the Cardinals series, will his complex mechanics be near the run he was on pre-injury or will the time off have affected him?

Cubs unveil 2018 schedule with more White Sox and a World Series rematch vs. Indians

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AP

Cubs unveil 2018 schedule with more White Sox and a World Series rematch vs. Indians

The Cubs will open their 143rd season with a 10-game road trip, expand the crosstown rivalry with the White Sox and revisit an epic World Series next year.

Those are some of the highlights from the tentative 2018 schedule released Tuesday, with the Cubs opening next season on March 29 at Marlins Park and traveling to Cincinnati and Milwaukee before the April 9 Wrigley Field opener against the Pirates.

One year after the stunning Jose Quintana trade, the Cubs will play two three-game series against the White Sox in Wrigleyville (May 11-13) and on the South Side (Sept. 21-23).

As part of that American League Central crossover, the Cubs will have flashbacks to the 2016 World Series in Cleveland, returning to the scene of an unforgettable Game 7 (April 24-25) and hosting the Indians — who are now one of the hottest teams in baseball history — for two more games a month later (May 22-23).

Check out the entire grid here: