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‘Whatever it takes’: Cubs beat Padres to keep share of playoff position, focus on 16-game sprint

By salvaging the four-game split with the otherwise belly-up Padres, the Cubs open a 10-game homestand Friday tied with the Brewers for the National League’s second wild-card position.

Chicago Cubs v San Diego Padres
“Everyone has confidence for sure. I know the last 10 days were tough, but we still have to compete each day,” said Darvish, who has pitched 11 scoreless innings over two starts since skipping a start with forearm stiffness. Darvish, who has a 2.44 ERA since the All-Star break, said he has felt no issue with the arm since returning.
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

SAN DIEGO — Cubs manager Joe Maddon dismissed the idea of having a team meeting before the series finale Thursday in San Diego, even after a week of bad losses and critical lost ground in the playoff chase.

But during the Cubs’ 4-1 victory over the Padres, he was reminded of why he should have reconsidered.

“You always should choose your team meetings based on who your starting pitcher is the next game,” he said. “If you don’t, then you’re making a huge mistake.”

Consider Yu Darvish’s 11th start into a huge second half for the Cubs a missed opportunity to assure results for a nice ass-kicking meeting. But it was still a crucially seized one for a team teetering on the brink of another season-closing crash.

When the Brewers won earlier in the day, the Cubs found themselves, for about two hours, out of playoff position in the standings for the first time since April.

By salvaging the four-game split with the otherwise belly-up Padres, the Cubs open a 10-game homestand Friday tied with the Brewers for the National League’s second wild-card spot — two games ahead of the Mets and Phillies.

The upside for this group on a day team president Theo Epstein hit the local airwaves to express “frustration” over “uninspired” play is that they might have found their savior with 16 games remaining.

The downside: Darvish gets the ball and the chance to continue his 2.44 ERA charge from the break — including 14 strikeouts in six scoreless innings Thursday — for only three of those games.

“He’s unbelievable,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whose return to the leadoff spot for a day (plus at least Friday) included a first-inning walk and run to set the tone.

Darvish, who hasn’t allowed a run in 11 innings since skipping a start because of forearm tightness, has struck out 93 in 66⅓ innings since the break with only six walks — two of them in the fifth inning Thursday.

“Few have been pitching better than he has,” Maddon said.

So have the Cubs found their Game 1 playoff starter?

Sure. OK. Whatever.

Another week like the last one — when the Brewers erased a five-game spread in six days — will make the question as moot as it was laughable Thursday.

“These next two-plus weeks, we just need to win. I don’t care how it’s done,” Rizzo said in a quiet clubhouse late Wednesday night after a fifth loss in six games. “I don’t care if it’s pretty or ugly. We just have to win.”

Nothing about that changed with the victory, especially after Epstein unloaded in the morning on the team’s flagship station about the team’s “failure to play up to our ability, up to our potential,” about “bad baseball” and about back-to-back losses to a Padres team “that I think we’re more talented than.”

Said Rizzo: “He wants to win just like all of us. He constructs this team and puts the pieces in place. And he wants to win. We all want to win.”

As far as the “uninspired” part, Rizzo said he doesn’t see letdown. “We’ve been ready to play, and we’ll be ready tomorrow,” he said. “Everything that’s said outside right now means nothing to us in here.”

It’s at least debatable whether the Cubs are actually better than any team that beats them these days. They have a losing record since the middle of May. Their top two shortstops and their closer are all out with injuries. They don’t field the ball well, run the bases well, score runs consistently or have an especially dependable bullpen.

No meeting can fix that.

“Everybody likes anger at these moments or being upset,” said Maddon, the oft-maligned championship manager. “It’s just not the right way to do things.”

Rizzo’s done with the debates and hand wringing.

“Whatever it takes,” he said. “We just have to win.”