Less than three weeks ago, the Cubs lost back-to-back games to the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. Maybe “blew” is a more fitting word than “lost.” The Cubs led late in both games before kind of falling apart.
After that series, some voices could be heard suggesting the Cardinals had — no kidding — taught the Cubs a lesson about toughness.
Even w their huge division lead Cubs have been taught a lesson about fight by the Cardinals the last 2 days...— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) August 15, 2016
It was a comical way to look at a Cardinals team that happens to be seven games under .500 on its own home turf, and a nonsensical way to look at a Cubs team that has been the best in baseball at nearly all points of the season.
Never more so than in August, when the Cubs were 22-6 — their most victories in any month since 1945 — taking what already was a promising situation and cranking the championship expectations up to 10.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“They’re as good as advertised,” said ESPN analyst and former Cubs star pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. “I’m sure those guys welcome whatever pressure might be on them right now.”
The Cubs closed August with a 15-game lead over second-place St. Louis in the N.L. Central — the largest end-of-August division lead for any big-league team since the 2008 Angels enjoyed a staggering 17-game advantage in the A.L. West.
The last time an N.L. Central team began September with a larger lead was in 2004, when the Cardinals led the Cubs by 15½ games.
Another way to look at it: Out of 78 end-of-August division leaders over the last 13 seasons, only two had bigger cushions than these Cubs.
In that same 13-year span, only two teams — the 2011 Phillies (86-48) and 2015 Cardinals (85-46) — entered September with better records than the Cubs, who are 85-47.
Caution: None of those four superb teams mentioned above made reached the mountaintop. The ’04 Cardinals were swept by Boston in the World Series. The ’08 Angels and ’11 Phillies were eliminated in the divisional round.
And we all know how it ended for St. Louis last year.
MORE CUBS HISTORY
Of the 17 Cubs playoff teams in baseball’s so-called modern era (because what says “modern” like the 19-aughts?), four had better end-of-August winning percentages than this year’s .645 mark.
The Cubs were 80-37 (.684) in 1910, 82-44 (.651) in 1918 and 83-41 (.669) in 1929, though none of those teams managed to win the World Series.
The 1907 Cubs were a crazy-good 89-32 (.736) on their way to a championship, but you knew that already.
Up: If Kris Bryant didn’t clinch the N.L. MVP award in August, he surely positioned himself squarely at the front of the line. In all for the month, Bryant batted .383 (41-for-107) with 10 home runs, 22 RBI and a sweet-fancy-Moses OPS of 1.220.
Up: The Cubs have won 11 series, lost three and tied one since the All-Star break. Seven of those 15 series have ended in Cubs sweeps. The team’s series record at Wrigley Field since the break — 8-0-1 — is kind of good.
Down-ish: When a team is playing .700 baseball in its division, there really isn’t going to be much drama. Yet it’s worth noting that the Cubs are a far more modest 19-14 (.576) against the N.L. East and entered the Giants series at only 16-13 (.551) against the N.L. West. Who says October is going to be easy?
1 THROUGH 9
1. Cubs: Time to strap in for the regular season’s home stretch. Stay away from injuries (did we say that word out loud?) and everything should be A-OK.
2. Rangers: They’re 45-21 at Globe Life Park, baseball’s best home team after the Cubs. File that away in case the teams, you know, meet down the line.
3. Nationals: All news on star pitcher Stephen Strasburg — on the 15-day D.L. with elbow soreness — is very encouraging.
4. Blue Jays: A series win in Baltimore was a heck of a way to start a nine-game road trip. Josh Donaldson for MVP again?
5. Dodgers: All signs point to a healthy September return for ace Clayton Kershaw — great for this team and just plain good for baseball.
6. Indians: Mike Napoli (29 home runs) hasn’t hit a bomb in three weeks. Will the big fella heat back up?
7. Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia is batting a mere .680 (17-for-25) over his last six games. That’ll work.
8. Tigers: Every time you think they’re out of the playoff mix, they fight their way back into it. Cleveland isn’t out of the woods yet.
9. Mets: And the hottest team in the National League is … yep. Cubs fans probably don’t want to hear about it.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.