Cubs ready to celebrate division title — with eye on postseason

SHARE Cubs ready to celebrate division title — with eye on postseason

Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks is one of the leading contenders for the Cy Young Award. But his focus is on team success in the playoffs.(Jeff Roberson/AP)

The Cubs were only mildly disappointed to clinch the National League Central Division while watching television — the Giants beating the Cardinals on the West Coast did the trick. It’s not like the celebration was going to that spontaneous anyway — with a 17-game lead with more than two weeks to go in the regular season.

Kyle Hendricks, in fact, said he “slept like a baby,” resting up for the actual celebration following Friday’s game against the Brewers.

“I was at home hangin’ out — pretty awesome,” Hendricks said Friday morning in the Cubs clubhouse. “I wish we could have won that one [Thursday night against the Brewers, a 5-4 loss] and done it like that. But it’s a season-long thing and it was obvious our first goal set out in the spring. To accomplish that, [it’s] the first baby-step on the road.”

After losing to the Brewers at Wrigley Field on Thursday night, the Cubs (93-53) clinched their first division title since 2008 when the Giants beat the Cardinals 6-2 in San Francisco. They lead the Cardinals (76-70) by 17 games with 16 to play. It’s the earliest the Cubs have ever clinched a championship — eclipsing the 1907 National League pennant winning team, which clinched with 14 games to play.

It was the magnitude of that cushion that stood out for manager Joe Maddon.

“It was Sept. 15 — that’s really unusual,” Maddon said. “That’s the part that I have kind of been downpaying — but it’s har to wrap my mind around it that you get it done that soon.

“Based on everything that we had talked about last offseason, spring training, this season, running through a tough All-Star break and then coming back on the other side, man, and just takin’ off. That’s really impressive on the part of our players.”

Winning the division avoids the coin-flip wild-card game — the Cubs beat the Pirates as the second wild-card last year. And the early clinching gives Maddon the opportunity to set up his position players and particularly his rotation starters exactly as he wants them for the postseason.

“Winning your division is always a highlight,” Maddon said. “You really want to avoid the wild-card game if you possibly can — it’s a tough day.

“Now we have this opportunity to plan it out slowly — really try to make some intelligent decisions while we’re playing the same game, with the same kind of intensity. That’s what I’m looking for.”

The Wrigley Field crowd gave the National League Central Division champion Cubs a well-deserved standing ovation when the players emerged from the dugout to acknowledge the fans prior to Friday’s game with the Brewers. The real celebration will be after the game. But the Cubs have their sights on bigger and better achievements. This team is one of the favorites, if not the favorite, to win the World Series, which would be kind of a big deal on the North Side. The Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908.

“There’s much more left for this team,” Hendricks, a Cy Young Award candidate, said when asked about balancing personal achievements. “There’s always more for the team. This is only the first baby step. We know where we want to go and it’s a lot more than just the division.”

Catcher David Ross, who played on division-championship teams with the Dodgers in 2004 and the World Champion Red Sox in 2013, predictably took the evening in stride and already had the bigger picture in sight.

“I didn’t do anything last night. Just hangin’ out with myself and watching the highlights on my way home and watching the game a little bit,” Ross said. “It’s exciting. Winning the division is pretty cool — a rare treat. I think we’ve seen this coming for a while now but it’s nice to finally have it in the books and get a focus on getting guys rest and focus on the areas we need to clean up.”

The Cubs clinched the wild-card with nine games left in the regular season last year — again backing in when the Giants lost to the A’s — and won their final eight games to go into the playoffs on a roll. They won the wild-card, beat the Cardinals 3-1 in the NL Division Series, but were swept by the Mets in the NL Championship Series.

“This gives us a chance to get everybody healthy and on the same page, Ross said, mentioning reliever Pedro Strop, expected to come off the disabled list next week. “Get a little rest early and then a little momentum going into the off days before the playoffs.

“I think throughout the year we’ve done a good job of focusing on the day and what’s to come. As long as we focus on being the best team that we can be, I don’t think we’ll have any problems.”

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