Cubs in the home stretch: start of something big or beginning of the end?

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Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo: “Say what you want about this team, but we’re in a position to win the division.” | David Banks/Getty Images

There was an eerie silence at Wrigley Field before Wednesday night’s game against the Pirates. Maybe that’s an odd way to begin about a game that that ended in a 10th-inning, 7-6 walk-off victory for the Cubs, but it’s true.

Fans filed in quietly as the temperature slowly dropped. If one was seeking an environment akin to “playoff baseball” — the Cubs are, after all, in the home stretch of a suddenly too-close-to-call race for a division title — this wasn’t, oddly enough, the place to find it.

Something about it felt more like an ending than a beginning. A real grind of a season is in the 11th hour, and there just might not be much left of it once the “regular” part is over. One way or another, the Cubs will play postseason baseball for the fourth year in a row — a towering achievement — but they’ll have gotten there with all the calm and certitude of a barrel going over a waterfall.

“It’s not smooth sailing here, but we figure out ways to win as a team,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “And it’s a good feeling.”

It’ll take lots more doing to beat the sizzling Brewers to the NL Central finish line. The Cubs began this regular-season-ending seven-game home stand 2½ games in front of the Brewers, but after 5-1 and 6-0 losses to the Pirates they were only half a game up and not all that far off from what would be a monumental collapse. The Brewers completed a sweep Wednesday in St. Louis, staying so close to the front that the Cubs can feel the collective breath of Brewtown on the backs of their necks.

Imagine if this team, which has spent months with the best record in the NL, were to end up in the wild-card game — and lose it — on Tuesday.

Over and out on Oct. 2? After all the sweat and promise of the last four years?

“If you qualify for the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, I think, as a Chicago Cubs fan, you should be pretty happy with that,” manager Joe Maddon said.

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A collapse would inextricably tie Addison Russell to the negative narrative of the season. The shortstop is on administrative leave as the league investigates allegations that he physically abused his ex-wife, and with each passing day it becomes less likely he’ll return to the Cubs fold. Probably not this season. Quite possibly never.

The infamous 2004 Cubs collapse had an unseemly war between the guys in the TV booth and the guys in the dugout. It had LaTroy Hawkins blowing save chances and Sammy Sosa leaving early. But it didn’t have anything as awkward and ominous as this Russell scenario.

In the clubhouse Wednesday, relievers Alec Mills and James Norwood — the only guys on an expanded September roster who have to share a locker stall — sat and stared at their phones. Mills sat in front of their locker, and Norwood sat in front of the adjacent one. The nameplate on it said “Russell.”

Why not? He’s not here.

Rizzo, meanwhile, hung out for half an hour in the empty chair in front of pitcher Jon Lester’s locker. Why there? Well, it was on the opposite side of the room from Rizzo’s usual spot. Perhaps he was simply trying to shake things up and change the Cubs’ luck.

It worked. To prove it, Rizzo and left fielder Kyle Schwarber dumped buckets of Gatorade over the head of the man who’d laced the winning single, Albert Almora Jr., and then — what else were they supposed to do? — threw the buckets at him.

But four more regular-season tests await the Cubs. And the Brewers are out there, ready to pounce on any missteps and claim the division title they desperately covet.

“Of course they do,” Maddon said. “They should.”

And here he flashed a smirk.

“But so do we.”

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