Cubs

Through travails, Cubs beat Nats, poised to nab all-important best record in NL

WASHINGTON — And the Cubs thought they were exhausted the last time they played at Nationals Park.

After a 4 a.m. arrival Thursday following Wednesday’s late victory in Milwaukee, the Cubs trudged off the bus, shook off the cobwebs, then spent four hours grinding out 10 more innings against the pedestrian, player-dumping Nationals — on the 17th day of a 23-games-in-23-days stretch.

Thanks to late-inning replacement David Bote and a six-man scoreless bullpen effort, the Cubs beat the Nats 6-4 in the opener of the four-game series.

Bote doubled home Albert Almora Jr. for the go-ahead run and later scored the insurance run.

After driving home the go-ahead run, David Bote slides home safely with the insurance run in Thursday's 10th inning. Now the Cubs will try to bring the best record in the league all the way home and into October.

“September call-ups, and you’ve got nobody left,” visibly weary manager Joe Maddon said, looking at his worn-out lineup card. “How’s that happen?”

No wonder the Cubs have their eye as much on maintaining the top record in the National League as they do their 4½-game lead over the Brewers in the NL Central.

“It’s always important,” Maddon said. “It’s the best way to do it. But it’s going to be a tough month, getting through this stretch particularly.”

Within the 23-day grind, this Nats series represents the last stop during an 11-game, four-city trip that started with a one-gamer in Atlanta, that included their first series loss (in Milwaukee) since July and that nonetheless has produced a 5-3 record.

“I think our guys are baseball bright enough and they’ve been through enough to know there’s no sense crying or complaining about this,” Maddon said. “You know this in advance. They’ve done wonderfully with this.”

If anything, the walk back into Nationals Park was a quick reminder of the taxing, epic five-game NL Division Series they won only when closer-on-fumes Wade Davis struck out Bryce Harper to end a 9-8 victory in Game 5.

It took the last drop of baseball fuel to outlast the Nationals before an overnight, cross-country flight to Los Angeles laid them flat for the opening of the NL Championship Series last year.

“There’s something to it, for sure,” said starter Kyle Hendricks, who struggled to get through five. “It helps with the travel especially. After a long year, you’ll really take any positives you can get. Our mind is on winning as many ballgames as we can, and if that happens to fall into our lap, we’ll definitely take advantage of it.”

The last time they finished that way, they rode it into the World Series.

“Getting the best record is very important to us,” Maddon said. “Obviously, it sets you up as you move forward.”

The travel is better. Home games to start series — and end those that go deep. And it usually means an early enough playoff clinch to set up the rotation.

And as much as the best record means for any team any year, it might mean more than ever in an NL playoff field that figures to be as wacky and wide open as any in recent memory.

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Don’t have a shutdown closer? Who does? The Brewers, Cardinals, Braves? Please. Even if the Dodgers get into the playoffs, Kenley Jansen — the NL’s top closer for years — is battling through issues related to an irregular heartbeat and will be handled carefully if he’s available by then at all.

Two of the top three Cy Young candidates — Jacob deGrom of the Mets and Max Scherzer of the Nationals — are all but eliminated already. And the third top contender, Aaron Nola of the Phillies, was three games out of a playoff spot with 23 to play.

And, by the way, the Cubs are third only to American League powers Boston and New York for the best home record in baseball at 44-24 (.647).

Hendricks points out that the playoff-tested Cubs have proved they can win anywhere.

“For other teams, they may feel more comfortable being at home,” he added. “There’s positives both ways. But it has been a weird year in the NL, so I think the positives will outweigh the negatives.”