PITTSBURGH — The Cubs say they believe they can catch the Pirates for the top wild-card spot in the National League, especially after taking three of four at PNC Park in the last three days.
Manager Joe Maddon said he’s still keeping the faith in a long-shot run at the Cardinals — the Cubs’ opponent this weekend at Wrigley Field — for the division title.
But when it comes to the lofty heights this young and flawed team has achieved — after a 9-6 beating Thursday of the team with the best home record in baseball — it really seems to come down to this:
“Do you believe in magic?” Maddon said after the Cubs finished off a 7-4 road trip that included series wins over the Cardinals and Pirates that came within a pair of bullpen letdowns of being sweeps.
Believe it or not, since Maddon hired “Simon the Magician” to make a five-game losing streak disappear June 30 in New York, the Cubs have the best record in the major leagues, a half-game ahead of the Pirates.
Maddon seemed only a little surprised to learn that when the trip concluded.
“There’s a lot to that,” he said.
It explains the success of a team that can’t trust its starting pitchers beyond the top two, has a hold-your-breath bullpen and still considers a runner on third with less than two outs an exercise in rocket science.
“I want to say I don’t believe in magic,” said rookie Kris Bryant, who had three hits and a walk, including a single in the middle of the Cubs’ six-run fifth inning. “I don’t believe in it until it affects us like that.”
The Cubs moved two games behind the Pirates in the chase for the top wild-card spot.
They also clinched the season series against the Pirates, assuring home field for the wild-card game if the teams finish with the same records.
Maybe there’s something to this magic the Cubs are pulling off in front of everyone’s disbelieving eyes.
“Nobody saw this coming,” said Pirates veteran Aramis Ramirez, who spent nine seasons with the Cubs, three that ended in the postseason. “They were going to be good eventually because they have a lot of talent. But nobody saw them being where they are right now.”
Maddon has talked about baseball magic since spring training.
“But you’ve got to earn it,” Maddon stressed again. “You’ve got to create it.”
Like they did Wednesday with Hector Rondon throwing two scoreless innings of relief in a 12-inning victory. And Clayton Richard going three scoreless innings in relief of struggling starter Kyle Hendricks on Thursday.
And Maddon pulling the strings to squeeze an unlikely playoff run out of a depth-challenged team.
“Joe’s found a good vibe to it, pressing the right buttons,” Chris Coghlan said.
“It’s all about Simon,” Maddon said.
Maybe it is.
It was no accident he chose that moment. Just like it was no accident the Cubs called up Kyle Schwarber to stick near the top of the order two weeks later. And maybe it was no coincidence that Arrieta went on a run of historic proportions right about that time.
“I know Simon wants to come back,” Maddon said. “He wants to make an encore performance.”
Not that the Cubs need it at this point.
“I think it’s more so bringing the team together and having a fun moment like that,” Bryant said of the surprising, distracting magic show just ahead of a three-game sweep of a Mets team the Cubs might have to face again in October.
“We know with him coming in here, he was going to do a lot of fun things,” Bryant said. “And that’s where it started.”
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