HOUSTON – About the time the Cubs began settling into their pregame routines at the ballpark Sunday afternoon in Houston, Ryan Braun hit a ninth-inning home run in St. Louis as the Brewers beat the Cardinals.
And, just like that, hours before the Cubs even took the field for their 9-5 victory over the Astros, the countdown was on for a party in St. Louis.
“Thank you, Milwaukee, for doing what you did,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “and let’s take care of our own business.
Maddon acknowledges the growing anticipation of the Cubs’ imminent clinching of their first division title in eight years. He said it doesn’t matter to him where it happens.
But at least a few guys in the clubhouse relish the thought of finishing off the Cardinals at Busch Stadium this week – a possibility the Brewers created even before Jake Arrieta earned his 17th win of the season Sunday.
“It would definitely be cool to do that,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who remembers multiple teams clinching against the Cubs down the stretch during a last-place season in 2014.
The Cubs, whose magic number for clinching fell to five with Sunday night’s win, would need to sweep the Cardinals to pull off the Busch clinch, just ahead of their final homestand of the regular season.
Catcher Miguel Montero said that was the Cubs’ goal for this road trip, which began Monday in Milwaukee.
“It would be cool to clinch in St. Louis, being on that field,” said Kyle Hendricks, the major-league ERA leader, who starts Monday’s series opener. “But we go home after that also, so clinching at home would be awesome, too, for the fans. Whatever day it ends up happening, we’ll just enjoy it that day.”
The last time the Cubs clinched a division title, in 2008, they did it by beating the Cardinals at Wrigley Field on Sept. 20.
Bigger than the opponent on the day they clinch is the fact the Cubs figure to have more than two weeks to manipulate their pitching schedule and rest players to prepare for an Oct. 7 playoff opener at Wrigley Field.
Last year, the Cubs clinched their wild-card playoff berth Sept. 25.
In that case, they clinched around midnight after losing a Friday afternoon game to the Pirates, then lost again on Saturday before staging their delayed champagne party.
“It was strange,” Hendricks said. “On the other hand, we were just fighting to get in, so clinching and having a chance to go to the playoffs [was more significant].
“Our team’s obviously at a very different place this year,” added Hendricks, whose Cubs are on pace for 104 wins. “It’s a different mindset in September definitely. With only a couple games separating us from when we can clinch this thing and wrap it up, it’s definitely on guys’ minds.”
But so are much bigger goals, say Hendricks and teammates.
“Whether it’s against St. Louis or Pittsburgh or anybody else, clinching is just the first stop,” said shortstop Addison Russell, whose 20th homer Sunday night pushed his RBI total to 90.
But it’s hard to deny how much more it would mean to many in the clubhouse to clinch against the longtime rival – the Cubs’ 90-year bully and perennial NL Central big shot.
“Especially the guys that have been here a little longer,” Hendricks said. “We obviously had trouble with the Cardinals the last few years. Even Joe talked about it last year, the mental approach to playing them and basically when that was going to flip. And we saw it flip last year.”
It flipped in a big way when the Cubs beat the Cardinals four games to one in the National League Division Series last October.
“Obviously, we have to do it first,” Rizzo said of clinching, regardless of date or locale. “But the writing’s right there on the wall. And enjoy it. Really enjoy it. Hopefully, we get to do it at home – but, then, again, hopefully, we get to go into St. Louis, sweep them and play spoiler against them.”
Said Hendricks: “It obviously would mean a lot to do it on their field. But regardless, just winning the division in general and beating those other teams out is going to be huge.”