By Gordon Wittenmyer
A strong start in April, a big August (19-9), a Cy Young favorite, a Rookie of the Year favorite and a Manager of the Year favorite all have contributed to the Cubs’ berth in the playoffs at least a year ahead of even some of the more optimistic internal projections. Some of the key moments from this season:
April 17. Nine games into the season, Kris Bryant made his heralded big-league debut – just as his energy-drink sponsor aired a Bryant commercial featuring a goat and a bus to Chicago. He has since broken nearly every major offensive team record for a rookie, played four positions and is the presumptive National League rookie of the year.
April 21. Thirteen games into the season, Addison Russell made his less heralded, but almost as significant, big-league debut, starting at second base and batting ninth, and developing into a strong defensive player at two positions. He remained in the lineup as a regular despite an up-and-down first half, eventually going on a monthlong .294 surge out of the break that included four homers and six doubles.
May 14. Fifth starter Travis Wood failed to get out of the fifth in his second consecutive start and was sent to the bullpen, where he has been an underrated key for the Cubs, producing a 3.21 ERA as a long man, occasional closer and two-time spot starter on bullpen days.
June 6. Struggling closer Hector Rondon got yanked from the ninth inning after walking the first batter he faced in a two-run game, signaling an abrupt change to the way the Cubs would do bullpen business. No more roles until further notice. Rondon has since earned his closer job back, but the all-hands-on-deck at-all-times directive remains in force — and in the mind of every reliever.
June 7. Class AAA infielder Javy Baez broke his finger on a slide into second base and missed more than a month on the disabled list. The Cubs already had discussed Baez in potential trades for pitching. Instead, the injury hurt his short-term value, contributing to the best defensive infielder on the team — at as many as three positions — staying in the organization. Meanwhile, Baez credits the rehab process with finally helping him make adjustments to his all-or-nothing hitting style, resulting in a steadier hitter (.286, three walks, since September call-up) to go with often spectacular fielding, making him a potentially key member of the playoff roster.
June 30. Simon the Magician. On the heels of a sweep in St. Louis that gave the Cubs their first five-game losing streak, manager Joe Maddon employed the services of a Las Vegas magician named Simon, who distracted and baffled players and staff in the clubhouse at Citi Field in New York. The Cubs went on to sweep the Mets (to finish a 7-0 season sweep), jump-starting a 50-29 surge to clinch a playoff berth.
July 17. Kyle Schwarber — who debuted a month earlier for a week as the Cubs’ designated hitter — joined the lineup to open the post-All-Star schedule. He went 3-for-4 that day, hit .321 with seven homers and 19 RBIs over the next month, and the Cubs have averaged almost exactly one run more per game since the All-Star break.
Aug. 6. One start after throwing 103 pitches in a victory, an angry Jason Hammel got yanked a start two walks into the fifth inning with a 5-2 lead at home against the Giants. He had retired 11 of the first 12 he faced. “I did not want to let them back into that game right there,” said Maddon, acknowledging a playoff-minded approach in early August. ‘‘Right now as we get into this particular juncture of the season you don’t want to just give anything away.’’ The Cubs won the game 5-4, taking a half-game lead over the Giants for the NL’s second wild-card position.
Aug. 7. Maddon benched three-time All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, who had slumped to .236 with almost no power after a strong April. Russell, in the midst of a second-half upswing at the plate, finishes the season as the starting shortstop. The Cubs are 30-17 (.638) since the move.
Aug. 30. Jake Arrieta no-hit the Dodgers in Los Angeles, one of his 10 victories after a Cubs loss (10-1), sending a powerful shot across the bow of the rest of the playoff field of what could be coming in October from the 20-game winner. Arrieta’s emergence as perhaps the most dominant starter in the majors prompted one long-time scout to suggest recently that he could be this year’s Madison Bumgarner.
Sept. 19. On a day the Cubs’ employed a bullpen game to cover the start, they beat the Cardinals 5-4 , withstanding a three-run rally in the ninth by the team with the best record in the majors. It was their fourth victory in five meetings against the Cards in a two-week stretch, after having lost nine of their first 13 meetings. ‘‘Now we know we can beat them, and they know we can beat them, too,’’ Maddon said.
Sept. 20. Jon Lester lost the game, but the $155 million left-hander picked off Cardinals runner Jhonny Peralta at first base in the third inning — the second time in as many starts that Lester successfully threw to first to nab a brash runner (also Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte). Lester hadn’t so much as attempted a pickoff throw for almost two years before this season, then committed throwing errors on two of his first three with the Cubs. The recent success, against prospective playoff opponents, could be a game-changer in the postseason against teams planning to steal at will and dare throws to bases against Lester.
Saturday. Despite losing their third consecutive game, the Cubs celebrated the playoff berth they clinched late Friday night (when the Giants lost in Oakland). The frolicking started in the clubhouse then moved onto the field where about 1,000 fans remained. It underscored a seasonlong theme of celebrating achievement and, as Maddon often says, “never letting the pressure exceed the pleasure.”
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