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How ready are Cubs for playoffs? They’ll find out this week

PITTSBURGH – Everybody knows by now that the Cubs are going to the playoffs, even the guys who have never played a must-win game, much less a clincher.

“We can smell it,” second-year pitcher Kyle Hendricks said.

“Every game feels like a playoff game right now,” rookie Kyle Schwarber said.

But are they ready for the real thing? Are they ready to win in October – to score without getting mistake pitches they can hit three miles, to hold slim leads against good teams, to shut down teams early behind a starter not named Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester?

They’re about to find out fast.

Half the remaining 20 games on the young Cubs’ schedule are against the likeliest first two playoff opponents, including seven in the next six days against the Pirates and National League Central-leading Cardinals.

“The best team in the National League right now? The Pirates,” said one major-league scout of the team the Cubs face four times in the next three days. “Second best? The Cubs.

“I didn’t say toughest. The toughest team is the Cardinals.”

Tough as in four consecutive trips to the National League Championship series and 57 postseason games in those four Octobers.

But when that tough team beat the last-place Reds on Sunday, it was after their worst 10-game stretch of the season, a 2-8 skid only that good because of a come-from-behind victory over the Cubs last week.

The Cubs have gone from 10 ½ games behind the Cardinals to 6 ½ and trail the Pirates for home field in a potential wild-card game by four heading into Tuesday’s doubleheader in Pittsburgh.

“It’s always something, some kind of story,” said one of the few October savvy veterans in the Cubs’ clubhouse, David Ross. “The environment will be way more exciting, it’ll be way more energetic, and that’ll be fun.

“But it doesn’t matter. We go out and do the same thing every day. All we can control is how we’re going to do play, how we prepare, how we’ve done it all year. That’s the only thing we can keep doing.”

That’s also, of course, the test for the only team in the potential playoff field that starts three rookies, none of whom played a big-league game before April 17 – and all of whom are major contributors, from Rookie of the Year favorite Kris Bryant, to slugging sensation Kyle Schwarber, to unusually poised shortstop Addison Russell, the youngest player on the team.

The Cubs are the second-highest scoring team (4.9 runs per game) in the National League since the All-Star break, behind only the Mets, tied with the Mets for most home runs (81) and second to the Mets in OPS (.767) – coinciding with Schwarber’s callup and leadoff man Dexter Fowler’s second-half rebirth.

“Those two guys back-to-back have pretty much kick-started our offense,” manager Joe Maddon said.

The Pirates rank just behind the Cubs in most offensive categories in the second half. But they’ve pitched better all season, and their ace, Gerrit Cole, offers the Cubs a preview in Tuesday’s opener of what a potential playoff matchup will look like.

Said a second big-league scout over the weekend: “The Pirates have the best lineup [in the playoff field]. But the Cubs can do the most damage.”

The Cardinals, despite their recent skid, still have the best record in the game, and the top-ranked pitching staff in the league – first or second half.

“This is why you work. This is why you do this thing, to be in that position, to play those kinds of games,” Maddon said. “It’s exciting for everybody, us, the fan bases, baseball fans almost throughout the world.”

They may talk like these are any other games and walk like these are any other games, but young or “old,” the Cubs know what they’re playing for this week.

“I think everyone in here is excited, myself included, because these are big games. Huge games,” said Chris Coghlan, coming off a four-hit game that included two triples and a homer. “Anytime you play somebody ahead of it’s two games for every one you win. So we understand that, and we expect to play well.”