Hendricks, Russell star as Cubs top Cardinals

A year ago Saturday, Theo Epstein was seated in the Wrigley Field bleachers wearing a fake bushy mustache and reveling with fans as the Cubs clinched the National League Central title.

It was the earliest a team had ever clinched the Central Division.

Epstein hasn’t had the luxury of a comfortable division lead this season, but the Cubs took a big step toward repeating as division champs Saturday with a 4-1 victory against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

By taking the game and series from the Cardinals, the Cubs have all but closed the door on their division rivals, who are five games out with 14 games to go. The Brewers are four games behind the Cubs in second place.

“My favorite pennant races are the ones where you’re sitting in the bleachers on Sept. 16,” Epstein said. “I kind of like those. But you have years where everything or most things go your way, and you have years where more things than usual seem like a challenge.”

This season has been more of the latter, but things are falling into place at the right time.

The Cubs won their fifth consecutive game and are riding their third five-game winning streak in the last month. The victory also insured a third consecutive winning season, a feat they have only achieved twice since World War II. Those winning seasons came from 2007 to ’09 and from 1967 to ’72.

“They’re totally invested right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “More right now than at any time or point during the season. We’ve caught our second wind, it appears. We need to maintain that the rest of the way through the regular season.”

The good news kept on flowing, too, with word that Jake Arrieta’s bullpen session went well. He threw 42 pitches, and Maddon said a decision on his next start could be made Sunday.

The optimal situation for the Cubs would be to bring Arrieta back to open a four-game series against the Brewers on Thursday.

As if that wasn’t enough late-season momentum, Addison Russell came off the disabled list and cranked a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning. The ball had an exit speed of 106 mph off Russell’s bat and traveled 437 feet.

It was his first career homer as a pinch hitter.

“We just wanted to get him an at-bat,” Maddon said. “All of a sudden, the ball’s in the seats.”

Kyle Hendricks pitched 7‰ innings and would’ve made it out of the eighth if not for allowing a solo homer to Matt Carpenter.

It was the first time Hendricks had gone beyond seven innings this season. Hendricks said it’s an important milestone at this time of the year to help stretch him out before the playoffs.

“That was another step forward,” Hendricks said. “Something I’ve been trying to do. To get in the eighth means I was getting some early outs.”

He scattered six hits, struck out five and walked one. Hendricks has now had seven consecutive quality starts.

The Cubs scored two runs in the fourth and another in the fifth, and Albert Almora Jr. had big at-bats.

He singled in Anthony Rizzo in the fourth, then hit the first of two doubles in the fifth to drive in Rizzo again. Almora went 3-for-4, with two RBI, to raise his batting average to .299.

“I’m just trying to not do too much, just see the ball in the zone and hit it as hard as I can,” Almora said.

The Cubs clinched the season series against St. Louis, and with a win Sunday, they’d pull off their second home sweep of the Cardinals.

Follow me on Twitter @davidjustCST.

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