ST. LOUIS – Just another game. That’s what Mike Montgomery said he considers Thursday’s series opener against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field.
Of course, he’s wrong. But, then, the starting pitcher for the Cubs that day has been with this team for less than two months.
Anthony Rizzo, who has been around a lot longer, knows how big Thursday became as soon as he and Jon Lester finished off the Cardinals with Wednesday’s 7-0 victory at Busch Stadium that reduced the Cubs’ magic number for clinching the division title to one game.
“It’s been the Cardinals’ division for so many years now, ever since I’ve been here,” said Rizzo, whose two home runs Wednesday gave him his third consecutive 30-homer season.
“We’re going to really enjoy it when we do clinch tomorrow,” he said, “or whenever we do it. We’re not taking it for granted. It’s not easy.”
Rizzo made his Cubs debut during the 101-loss season in 2012, signed a long-term extension during a last-place 2013 season and earned his first of three All-Star selections during another last-place season in 2014.
“It means a lot to win a division,” he said. “It’s not easy to do. We’ve grinded all year and at times made it look easy, and at times made it look hard, but been able to get to this point.”
Rizzo, who also reached 100 RBIs for the second consecutive season, was one of the first building blocks of this World Series favorite.
But the arrival of Lester (17-4) as a free agent before last season was the pivot point toward catching – and now surpassing – the perennial contender Cardinals in the division.
His eight innings of three-hit pitching Wednesday came two games after Kyle Hendricks took a no-hitter into the ninth, giving the Cubs series wins all three trips to St. Louis this year.
Lester also might be pitching better than he has at any point in his life (7-0, 1.02 ERA in his last nine starts). So is Hendricks (1.59 last 20 games). And Jake Arrieta, the NL’s reigning Cy Young winner, has a shot at back-to-back 20-win seasons.
They also have an MVP favorite in Kris Bryant. Rizzo’s in the same conversation. And at least three Cubs should get serious Gold Glove consideration (Rizzo, shortstop Addison Russell and right fielder Jason Heyward).
No wonder the Cubs are in position the first half of September to clinch their first division title in eight years with their next win or the Cards’ next loss. And their magic number for clinching the home field throughout the National League playoffs is 11. And a 7-10 or better finish results in the franchise’s first 100 win season since 1935.
“Let’s do it,” manager Joe Maddon said of the chance to clinch Thursday. “The sooner we get it done, then we can make our appropriate plans moving forward, really trying to set things up and make our best guesstimates regarding how to do it.”
That’s also when “Embrace the Target” turns to “Erase the Target” for Maddon’s Cubs.
“It’s an entirely different method at that point,” he said of shifting to the playoffs. “Pretty much everybody’s good at that point. Everybody’s a target. The Giants will feel a target. The Mets will feel a target. It evens out at that moment.”
And then it starts. The cooler weather, the hotter moments, the biggest stage and the cruelest month in baseball.
“Obviously, everybody’s goal coming to spring training is win the World Series,” Lester said. “Hopefully we saved some bullets, and guys are feeling good going into October, and we put one good, last run into it.”
Until then, there is Thursday.
“We’re excited to be going home with a chance to clinch,” said David Ross, whose 429-foot, two-run homer in the fifth gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead. “Everybody’s looking forward to that, and the energy at Wrigley.
“It’s a lot of fun to be a Cub right now.”