Esteemed colleague Rick Morrissey writes a compelling case that baseball as we know it on the North Side should jump straight to the postseason since the most drama we can expect over the final two months of the season involves watching ivy change color.
Somebody buy that man a season-ticket plan for the final two months. Because, with all due respect, he has no idea what he would choose to miss.
With 52 games left, the Cubs promise more drama than a White Sox throwback day, more health hazards than the swim leg of the triathlon in Rio and more storylines than Joe Maddon has T-shirt slogans.
Just a few:
Will the Cubs’ starting pitching hold up, and if so, then what? One of the more remarkable and underreported stories of the Cubs’ nearly two-year run of success involves the health of a starting rotation that hasn’t had a pitcher from its opening rotation go on the DL either season. The Cubs were one of the last two teams in the majors this year to use a sixth starter – and only because they chose to as a way to manufacture an off-day between turns for the starting five. It’s the biggest reason the Cubs have been the top performing rotation in the majors all year and could lead to the pressing dilemma in seven weeks: Which one gets dropped when the Cubs decide on a for-man playoff rotation?
Will the Cubs’ $184 million free agent rediscover how to hit by the time the playoffs start? Jason Heyward, whose contributions as a fielder, base runner and clubhouse influence, are undisputed, nonetheless is mired in the deepest, season-long slump of his career. Scouts say his swing is a mess. His .229 average and .634 OPS suggest at least as much. He was arguably the Cardinals’ toughest out in their playoff series against the Cubs last October; and if he doesn’t get right he could be an even bigger drag on the Cubs this October.
Card tricks:The Cubs have 10 games left against the second-place Cardinals, including seven at home – four this week – with the chance to pile on to what’s already the biggest division lead in baseball. Or let their rivals creep back into a semblance of a race.
Catcher in the way? Rookie Willson Contreras is promised a heavier workload behind the plate down the stretch as manager Joe Maddon tries to keep his bat in the lineup in the wake of Jorge Soler’s return to the outfield. It’s a look at what the Cubs’ believe is their All-Star-caliber catching future, but it’s also a potentially sensitive time for on-the-job training. And it doesn’t bode well for veteran Miguel Montero – especially with pitchers such as John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks praising the progress Contreras has made as a game caller in less than two months in the majors. “Willie behind the plate was just phenomenal,” Hendricks said after his gem Sunday in Oakland. “And I thought our last one was good.”
Somebody say Cy Young? Morrissey’s guy, Hendricks, is effectively the major league’s ERA leader (2.17), just ahead of San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, and just behind the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw – who’s on the DL and less than two weeks from falling short of enough innings to qualify. He’s also the reigning NL co-player of the week. The Cubs’ fifth starter makes 90-mph look like 95 because of the best changeup on the staff, and he’s getting serious attention in the national Cy Young conversation. He has 10 starts left to make his case.
Shark Week:A four-game series against the Giants, starting Sept. 1, could offer both a glimpse into a potential National League Championship matchup as well as the first glimpse at Wrigley Field of Jeff Samardzija pitching against his old team. This is the only contender the Cubs have not won a series against this season (losing two of three in San Francisco in May). And don’t believe anyone who tells you different: There’s little love lost between a pair of National League powerhouse teams that represent baseball’s polar extremes in all-business-vs.-business-casual management styles. Some insiders consider it a matchup of the three-ring circus vs. the three rings in six years.
Pennant drive of the century: Yeah, 108 years since a championship. Whatever. The more compelling question until then is whether this team can finish 31-21 or better and reach 100 victories. No team run by Theo Epstein has ever done that (2004 Red Sox champs won 98 in the regular season). The Cubs have five 100-win seasons in the first 140 years of National League baseball – none since 1935. They lost in the World Series that year, and, also, albeit, their last 100-win season before that (1910). Come to think of it, they didn’t even reach the World Series in the one before that (1909). Never mind.