Maybe Cubs manager Joe Maddon should have done this whole ‘‘playoffs start now’’ thing a few weeks ago.
Because two games into his October-comes-early declaration, the Cubs have two big victories behind two playoff-caliber pitching performances.
The Cubs’ 8-4 victory in the series opener Friday against the Cardinals put them in position to clinch a third National League Central championship in a row in the next two days.
‘‘Even before ‘Skip’ said that, we all felt it,’’ center fielder Albert Almora Jr. said. ‘‘And we all knew what was at stake. It’s awesome, man. It’s a great time of the year, and we’re in a good spot.’’
Kyle Hendricks (14-11) pitched eight strong innings as the Cubs maintained their one-game lead over the second-place Brewers, who beat the Tigers 6-5 later in the day.
‘‘This is what you look for,’’ said Hendricks, who hasn’t allowed more than two runs in any of his last eight starts and has a 1.66 ERA in that span. ‘‘These are the games you want to play in, games that have meaning. That’s why we play the game. Hopefully, we have a lot of these left.’’
Along the way, the Cubs dealt a heavy blow to the Cardinals’ hopes of earning the NL’s second wild-card spot.
Hendricks’ outing — his third in a row of at least 7 2/3 innings, enabling him to finish with 199 for the season — followed a scoreless six-inning start by presumptive Game 1 playoff starter Jon Lester in the Cubs’ victory Thursday against the Pirates. Lester also finished on his best eight-start run of the season: 6-1, 1.71 ERA.
For a team still trying to figure out how it’s going to finish games because of key bullpen injuries, the late-season kicks of those two — combined with the big-game pedigree of Cole Hamels — become significant sources of confidence in October.
‘‘Guys that have been-there, done-that, you can feel it,’’ Maddon said of the three pitchers, all of whom have started World Series clinchers. ‘‘You can feel it in the dugout. You can see it on the field.
‘‘When they go out there, they’re not nervous; they’re just eager.’’
When the Cubs clinched a fourth consecutive playoff berth Wednesday for the first time in franchise history, they celebrated with a collective shrug as they focused more on the bigger prize of a division title.
Maddon did gather everyone for a round of shots in the clubhouse after the Cubs’ victory Thursday to praise the seasonlong achievement and to underscore his pregame assertion that the playoffs already were upon them.
‘‘Honestly, it’s felt like that all year long, especially in this division,’’ said right fielder Jason Heyward, who homered Wednesday and drove in one of two first-inning runs Friday. ‘‘It’s felt like the postseason’s been here.
‘‘We’ve got a lot of work to do still, but this is the fun part of the year.’’
Whatever the Cubs do for the rest of the weekend or in the next month, they’ll do it without their top three free-agent signees of last winter (walk-prone Tyler Chatwood and injured Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow).
They’ll do it without former All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, who is on administrative leave for a domestic-violence investigation.
And they might have to do it with gimpy backup closer Pedro Strop (hamstring).
‘‘[But] we’ve been here before,’’ 2016 NL most valuable player Kris Bryant said. ‘‘We’ve been in pressure situations. We know how to handle it.’’
He said that after returning from a two-day absence since getting hit on the wrist by a pitch Tuesday and hitting a 448-foot home run to center Friday.
He called it ‘‘one of the worst hit-by-pitches I’ve had in my whole life’’ but said he felt good Friday. That seemed to be a consensus feeling after the victory.
‘‘We always know what we have,’’ Hendricks said. ‘‘No matter how we’ve been playing, we know what’s in that room. And we always have confidence in that.’’