MORRISSEY: One victory over the Nationals is worth a lot more
Based on strength of schedule and number of quality wins, the Cubs are a bubble team. In positive news, I do like their chances of winning the conference tournament.
Oh, wait. You’re right. This isn’t the buildup to the NCAA tournament. The only Big Dance is whatever those zany Cubs relievers are doing in the bullpen. This is baseball, where one victory weighs as much as another.
But, come on. The Cubs and their fans have to feel a lot better about the 7-4 victory Saturday against the No. 3-ranked Nationals than they did about any of the victories against the White Sox of the Big Sky Conference or the Braves of the Ohio Valley Conference.
I’m willing to concede that beating Nationals pitcher Edwin Jackson, a former Cubs bust, affects the luster of the victory a bit, if not the North Siders’ RPI, which I’ve heard is a second cousin metrically of BABiP.
But a quality win against a quality opponent is important, even if there’s no real way to measure its cosmic value.
‘‘This is the big leagues, man,’’ Cubs pitcher John Lackey said. ‘‘There’s no bad teams out there.’’
Sorry, cowboy, not buying it. If the Cubs are serious about this whole back-to-back World Series thing, they have to start beating good teams with some regularity. The victory against the Nats ended a three-game skid, and each of those losses at Wrigley Field had come against winning teams — two against the Diamondbacks and one against the Nats.
I don’t know if this was the start of something, if a line was crossed, if a mountain was scaled. I do know that many of the victories they’ve filled up on since the All-Star break don’t feel nearly as meaningful as what they did to the Nationals, who are 20 games above .500.
Last season, the Cubs beat everybody. Good, mediocre, bad — they didn’t care who it was.
At the All-Star break this season, the Cubs were 13-21 against teams with winning records. Since then, they’re 4-4 against winning teams. There is such a thing as muscle memory when the playoffs start. Having beaten the best in the regular season lets you know you can do the same in the postseason.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon doesn’t seem to believe in quality victories or degree of difficulty in the regular season.
‘‘No, as long as you get to the playoffs,’’ he said. ‘‘I want to believe that we will beat some of the better teams during the season in order to get there. Right now, there’s so much parity throughout each league. You can look at the records. There’s a lot of guys around .500. There’s a couple of outliers, but for the most part we’re all languishing right around .500.’’
To summarize the skipper, making the playoffs, no matter how you do it, is the only thing of consequence; also, the 58-51 Cubs will start beating good teams. I believe that’s called ‘‘covering your bases.’’
‘‘Listen, we’ll always take it any way we can get it,’’ he said. ‘‘But I do believe we can play with anybody. I really mean that sincerely. We have to get more consistent offensively. We have to get more consistent offensively against better pitching. We have to continue what we’re doing on the pitching side. The starters have gotten better.
‘‘We’ve had a little bit of a shaky road bullpen-wise in the beginning of the second half, but I have a lot of faith in these guys.’’
Lackey was good enough. By the time the first inning was over, the Cubs were up 4-1, thanks in part to Alex Avila’s first home run as a Cub and in part to Jackson’s Wrigley flashbacks. But a three-run lead against the Nationals’ powerful lineup is as safe as an unattended wallet in the big city. So the Cubs were happy to have a 4-3 lead by the time Lackey was done after five innings. He has pitched well since the break, and this is what you hope to get from him when his cranky foot doesn’t complain and his 38 years on the planet don’t seem to be an issue.
Then it was a matter of the Cubs’ bats staying warm, no sure thing. But Willson Contreras, a revelation this season, hit his 19th home run, a two-run shot in the sixth. Breathing room is always a good thing.
The Cubs should win the National League Central. Should, not will. They have more talent than the Brewers. But it has been an odd season.
They didn’t have to face Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer in this three-game series. They got Jackson, who is on his 12th team, tied for the second-most in major-league history. There’s a reason for his wanderings.
But he plays for a good team, and the Cubs beat that good team. Another victory against the Nationals on Sunday sure would help. You know, come tournament time.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.