The internet headline read, “3 things we learned from the Cubs’ sweep of the Reds.” It should have had the accompanying headline, “Let me save you a lot of trouble: The Reds stink.”
What we need to focus on with the Cubs — what the focus should be on with any good team — is how they’ve done against worthy opponents. Anybody can beat up on the Reds, and anybody has. The Reds were 56-75 after getting swept in a four-game series at Wrigley Field that ended Sunday.
Theo Epstein constructed this Cubs team to win a World Series. That’s how high the bar is, and it’s a truly wonderful thing. It’s why, when trying to gauge where the Cubs are as September approaches, it’s important to look at how they have done against opponents with real playoff aspirations.
The answer is: not bad. Not great, but not terrible. They’re 30-28 against teams with winning records this season. They were 46-25 against everybody else going into their game Monday night against the lowly Mets. They don’t have to apologize for winning 65 percent of those games. It’s what should happen when good teams play lesser teams.
But you’d like to see more weight-class success from a team that was a season-high 23 games over .500 heading into Monday’s game.
The Cubs’ work against the American League Central paints a decent (though small) picture of a season. They’re 1-3 against the first-place Indians, and they’re 10-3 against the rest of a weak division. Again, no need for apologies. It’s not the Cubs’ fault the AL Central is dreadful. And with what feels like half of major-league teams rebuilding or tanking (choose your truth) this season, good teams are guaranteed more victories.
That’s part of why you have to go back more than a month to find a series the Cubs have won against a team (the Cardinals) with a winning record. And since they took two of three from the Dodgers at Wrigley more than two months ago, only five of the 18 series they’ve played have been against teams that are above .500.
The good news for the Cubs and their fans is that they’re 9-4 against the Brewers, one of their pesky division rivals. The bad news is that it makes them 21-24 against the rest of teams that are above .500.
But that’s a lot better than their 11-21 regular-season record in 2017 against teams that ended up making the playoffs. Bad news: They were 2-4 in the ’17 regular season against the Dodgers, the team that beat them in five games in the NLCS.
The regular season counts for something.
The Cubs have enough talent to win the National League pennant, and manager Joe Maddon is counting on that talent rising to the top at the right time. The question becomes whether they’re a team made for the brightest lights — one that can take their game to another level when the moments count most. There isn’t much from this season that would point to an affirmative answer. But there’s a 2016 World Series title and three straight NLCS appearances that say they can raise their game.
What the Cubs are counting on has nothing to do with Daniel Murphy’s .391 batting average or Cole Hamels’ 0.79 ERA since they arrived on the North Side. Those results have come against some of the bad-to-mediocre teams we’ve been discussing. When Epstein, the team’s president, puts his head on a pillow at night, he’s dreaming of Hamels dominating in the playoffs the way he did for the Phillies in 2008, when he was the MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series. And he’s dreaming of the kind of performance that used to be a nightmare — Murphy hitting .529 against the Cubs in the 2015 NLCS and being named the series MVP.
After their three-game series against the Mets, the Cubs play seven straight road games against winning teams: the Braves (one game), Phillies and Brewers. After that, they have three more series against above-.500 teams: the Brewers, Diamondbacks and Cardinals.
They would feel a lot better about themselves if they went on a roll against good teams. You’d much rather have them going into the playoffs hot than relying on the flip of a switch in October, a risky proposition.
Nutritional value matters. No matter how much Maddon gushes after a sweep of the Reds, he knows a sweep of the Cardinals or Brewers will mean a lot more in terms of confidence. All victories are not created equal.