HOUSTON — Sooner rather than later — in St. Louis during the first half of the week, or at Wrigley Field during the latter — the Cubs will lock up their postseason berth and their division title. Maybe even on the same day.
It will be cause anew for praise of team president Theo Epstein and acknowledgement of the enormous success of “the Plan.” There’s a big picture here, and it’s mighty impressive every time you gaze upon it.
What’s rarely remembered — let alone appreciated by the Cubs-crazed masses — is an arguably meaningless game in Cincinnati in the dog days of 2014.
Then again, some say a single moment during that game meant a whole hell of a lot.
“It turned this thing around,” ESPN analyst and former Cubs star Rick Sutcliffe said. “It was the day other teams got the message that the Cubs weren’t going to take it anymore.”
It was the finale of a five-game series in which the last-place Cubs had already been beaten four times. They were stuck in the ooze of a six-game losing streak and, not a week before, had traded away pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland.
The Cubs were sellers.
On the field, they still were big losers.
And every other team knew it.
In the ninth inning of a tied series finale, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman power-blasted the Cubs with fastballs and attitude — and fastballs with altitude. The future Cub chirped at the visitors’ dugout after an inning-ending strikeout, and tensions remained high as the Cubs took the field.
Basically, the Reds were laughing at the Cubs.
So Anthony Rizzo walked from first base toward the home dugout, threw down his glove and all but engraved invitations for the Reds to come on out.
“Rizz was ready to fight, man,” said then-Cub Luis Valbuena, now with the Astros. “Oh, my god, was he ready to fight. He was ready to protect his teammates.”
Some believe it was a cultural turning point for the Cubs.
“It was very meaningful,” said Chris Coghlan, “because back then we just got kicked around a lot. We were just kind of nice guys who maybe — who knows? — were going to be good in a couple of years. That was the reputation we had with other teams.
“What Rizz did that day was stand up as a leader — which you don’t often see from guys with superstar skill sets — and let it be known that things were changing right now.”
A bunch of things changed that day. It took them 12 innings to do it, but the Cubs actually won a game. Also, it happened to be the major league debut of pitcher Kyle Hendricks, who started and threw six innings and charged out of the dugout with a bunch of guys he hardly knew when the benches cleared.
“I was like, ‘Really? Is that typical up here?,’ ” Hendricks said.
It also was the day Rizzo learned he’d made his first All-Star roster. Then-manager Rick Renteria announced it to his players as soon as they entered the clubhouse. Rizzo’s teammates converged on him and celebrated — for a minute, anyway — like they’d clinched a spot in the playoffs.
By now, the Cubs have replaced — and upgraded from — a large majority of the players who were on that 2014 team. Does a culture change then really have anything to do with what’s going on now?
“A few people have said it was a turning point,” said Rizzo, “but I’m not going to point to that game as the start of something.”
In a big-picture way, it probably wasn’t. Sometimes, though, the beauty is in the details.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.