MILWAUKEE – Now that all the preliminaries are out of the way, let the games begin for the Cubs.
They’ve taken care of business for four months, including a four-game sweep of the depleted Brewers in Milwaukee, finishing it off with a 4-3 victory at Miller Park on Sunday.
Sunday’s victory, behind the six innings of spot starter Clayton Richard, closed out a 20-game stretch against losing teams in which the Cubs went 11-9 – finishing with five straight victories and reaching 10 games over .500 for the first time since 2008.
Now comes the more intense heat of August, what manager Joe Maddon suggests might be the biggest challenge of the season for his young team. It starts with a week of games against playoff-tested Pittsburgh and San Francisco that could be an early windsock for the Cubs’ direction down the stretch.
“I love it. I think it’s great,” said Maddon, whose team on Sunday caught the Giants in the race for the National League’s second wild card spot – and trail the Pirates by five games for the first wild-card spot. “To really ascend in a division you have to play the better teams within your group and beat them.
“And to beat them where they live is important, too. It’s really kind of fun. I think it’s a blast.”
It’s a different Pirates team than the one the Cubs last saw in May, as Maddon pointed out Sunday. Three days after the Cubs’ last meeting with Pittsburgh – in the Cubs’ series victory at Wrigley Field – the Pirates dropped to 18-22.
They’re 43-21 (.672) since then. The Cubs are 35-30 over the same stretch – but they’re also a team with a different look, with rookie Kyle Schwarber in the everyday lineup and two new pitchers added in deadline trades Friday.
Whether they have Kris Bryant for Monday’s series opener will depend on how he fares when he’s examined again for concussion symptoms Monday morning.
Bryant left the game in the fifth inning after hitting his head on shortstop Jean Segura’s led on a head-first slide, and said he felt better after the game. He hasn’t been diagnosed with a concussion, and the Cubs are optimistic that’ll remain the case Monday.
The biggest difference between the Cubs and Pirates – and the Cubs and Giants – is the October track records that figure to measure the Cubs this week.
“There’s definitely an advantage,” said Maddon, who took the Tampa Bay Rays to all four of their playoff appearances during his nine years managing there. “Been there, done that – when it comes to winning, no question [it’s an advantage].
“But at the same time, you’ve got a bunch of hungry guys coming on, which could be, in and of itself, a pretty good position to be in, too.”
By their own internal projections, the Cubs are a year ahead of schedule on the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer rebuilding plan. Assuming a healthy increase in baseball operations resources for 2016, the development of the young core and another big addition or two from the outside could make next year a season of bona fide big expectations.
The guys in the clubhouse aren’t giving up on the big expectations this year. But World Series or not, just getting to the playoffs – even if it’s a one-and-done appearance as the second wild card – could pay off in a big way. In a been-there, done-that way.
“The mind once stretched, man,” said Maddon, referring to one of his favorite sayings about that stretched mind having “a very difficult time going back to its original form.”
“You have to stretch your mind once, to get to the playoffs, and then moving beyond that, it becomes more believable on an annual basis, and it’s something where you won’t settle for anything less than that on an annual basis.”