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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.

Joe Maddon's reaction to Brewers-Marlins series moving to Milwaukee

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon's reaction to Brewers-Marlins series moving to Milwaukee

Joe Maddon enjoys entertaining the media, playing mind games with the opposition and going viral on social media. But the Cubs manager has such deep roots in Florida – and an awareness of the outside world – that he had no problems with Major League Baseball moving this weekend’s Miami Marlins-Milwaukee Brewers series to Miller Park in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

“Obviously, something had to be done,” Maddon said Wednesday at Wrigley Field. “I have no issues with it. None.”

In a crowded National League Central race, the Cubs went into that night’s game against the New York Mets with a 2-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and a 2.5-game lead on the Brewers, who will technically be the visiting team in a stadium where they have a 40-33 record.

Publicly and privately, the Brewers have grumbled about their scheduling issues with the Cubs, from the first Friday night regular-season game in Wrigley Field history to the postponed May 20 game that led to this classic one-liner from manager Craig Counsell: “First time for us that we’ve had players treated for sunburn after a rainout.”

In what will be a homecoming for Maddon, the Cubs are still on track to play a two-game series at Tropicana Field next week after the Tampa Bay Rays temporarily relocated to New York, losing two of three games to the Yankees at Citi Field.

Do you think the Brewers would have issues with the setup if it had been reversed for the Cubs in the middle of a pennant race?

“Listen, you talk about the situation being as severe as it is in South Florida – and Florida in general – there’s no time to quibble over situations like this,” Maddon said. “It’s just a matter of you’re getting to the latter part of the season – whatever MLB thinks works best is fine. They still have to play the Marlins with Giancarlo (Stanton) doing as well as he is.

“Regardless, the ball carries there pretty good, too, so who knows? But I don’t think there’s anything to quibble about. I just think it’s about making sure the games are played. Of course, there’s a roof there, and they know that the games will be played under those circumstances, so I have no issues.”

Of course, if Maddon had overreacted, and the Cubs really believed this could be a difference-maker, then this team doesn’t really deserve to win the division.

More scheduling drama: Brewers give the Cubs a reason to complain

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USA TODAY

More scheduling drama: Brewers give the Cubs a reason to complain

The Cubs and Brewers haven't been too happy with each other this season as far as scheduling is concerned.

It began when the Cubs postponed their May 20 game against the Brewers because they expected rains to come in the late afternoon. That rain never came, and the Brewers were none too pleased.

Then last week the Cubs changed their start time againt the Brewers on Friday to 7:05 p.m. to accomodate the North Siders' travel schedule coming from Pittsburgh. The Brewers, yet again, were unhappy with the change.

Now there's more controversy. Because of the effect Hurricane Irma has had on the Southeast, Major League Baseball and the Miami Marlins have agreed to move their three-game series against the Brewers this weekend to Miller Park in Milwaukee.

A statement from Marlins president David Samson said that Marlins Park "stood ready to host the games, but we all agreed that burdening publis service resources was not the proper course of action." The Marlins are expected to return home Monday to begin a series against the Mets.

This certainly helps the Brewers, who are 40-33 at home compared to 36-36 on the road. It also makes life more difficult on the Marlins, who are above .500 in Miami and just 32-41 on the road. They'll be traveling from Philadelphia after their series with the Phillies concludes Thursday night.