We Are Good.
It’s been the unofficial motto of the Cubs for two seasons now, outlasting the somewhat limp corporate sheen of “Let’s Go,” and packing the same pithiness as the slogan-du-jour, “Try Not to Suck,” and it’s been evident that these Cubs are good since at least the middle of last season. Running laps around the league this season, in which they led the NL Central wire-to-wire, the Cubs proved many times over that they were going to kick ass and chew David’s, and they’re all out of sunflower seeds.
The Wild Card berth last season, and the subsequent shellacking of the Cardinals in the NLDS, were satisfying and somewhat surprising. But the Cubs organization’s goal was never a wild card and a good playoff showing; it was to thump the competition roundly, to embarrass National League pitching, to earn the divisional crown, and to nab one of those coveted Division Series spots, sans the stressful one-game playoff. 2015’s culminating loss at the hands of the Mets was disappointing, surely, but every Cub and every fan knew that what was on the horizon was to be even sweeter than that season’s improbable run.
Friday, “We Are Good” felt like a cheeky understatement, a far cry from last season’s aspirational tinge. The Cubs clinched the Central Division overnight, with 16 games remaining, the result of the Giants’ victory over the Cardinals, but they desired a true clinching party after a Friday victory. It was a day of levity, despite the tug-of-war game on the field: Theo Epstein donned a false mustache-and-soul-patch in the vein of Frank Zappa or Mike Maddux, hiding in plain site in the front row of the bleachers. His front office colleagues joined him, unrecognized for a few innings. The windy day blew off Epstein’s soul patch, briefly making him a Chicago Superfan (can’t the man afford some spirit gum?), and the Superfans themselves will be pleased. The Cubs are National League Central Division champions for the fourth time, and the first time in eight years.
Top Play (WPA): With the Cubs’ C-list lineup on the field and a two-run deficit in the ninth, it was doubtful that the team would muster a comeback. A Willson Contreras double, Chris Coghlan RBI single, Chris Carter error, and Munenori Kawasaki hit-by-pitch set the table for pinch hitter Addison Russell. The precocious shortstop, whose 20 home runs and 92 RBI put him in rarified air in terms of young shortstops, singled to center, bringing home Coghlan to tie the game at four. While the loaded bases gave the Cubs two more opportunities to walk off—and oh how close did they come to a “shrimp,” the ignominious walk-off walk—Matt Szczur and Javier Baez flied and grounded out, respectively. The game pushed into extra innings, delaying the impending champagne baths for a begoggled clubhouse.
Free baseball wouldn’t last long, however. Miguel Montero—exuberant catcher, author of We Are Good, and victim of shrinking playing time—made the abstract motto concrete in the form of a walk-off home run. Miggy slugged a 1-1 fastball from Blaine Boyer just to the right of the cut in the left-field wall, the capacity Wrigley Field crowd tipping from tension into frenzy (+.369).
Bottom Play (WPA): Your humble author sent out a tweet lamenting Maddon’s choice to leave Lackey in the game into the seventh. Lackey inched toward 100 pitches, certainly too many for a 37-year-old pitcher coming off an injury and with the playoffs on the horizon. He hadn’t exhibited great command in the game, despite eight strikeouts, further pushing the decision to leave the starter in into questionable tactical territory.
Of course, sometimes bad process yields good results. Alas, this was not one of those times. Andrew Susac led off the inning with a single, and while Lackey induced consecutive groundballs to get the first two outs of the inning, he grooved a two-seamer to Scooter Gennett, who parked the ball in the right-field bleachers (-.318). The Brewers took a two-run lead, and with the Cubs’ outs dwindling, it looked to be a triumph for Milwaukee over the hangover Cubs.
Key Moment: Look, the key moments are the two above plays, but I’m going to choose one of the young Cubs’ contributions in this game. Lackey surrendered a pair of solo homers in the second and third innings, the Cubs stared down a two-run gap, and Albert Almora Jr., came up big. After a Coghlan single to lead off the fifth, Almora launched a 3-2 fastball into the first few rows of the left-field bleachers. He had missed a meaty 2-0 fastball earlier in the at-bat, so it was a sort of mini redemption for the outfielder.
Jorge Soler left the ballgame in the fourth with tightness in his “right side,” not a good omen considering his muscle injury history. It did set the table for Montero to enter the game at catcher, with Contreras moving to left, but Soler’s prognosis is unknown. He’ll likely receive ample rest before the playoffs begin.
Trend to Watch: The Washington Nationals. The Cubs aren’t going to do much interesting down the stretch, save keep the six-pitcher rotation with Mike Montgomery and audition bench players, so it’s worth it to keep an eye on the primary threat to the Cubs’ National League hegemony. The magic number for the Cubs to clinch home-field advantage is now nine, pending the Nationals’ Friday result.
Coming Next: Saturday’s game is a rare 3:05 CDT start. Jake Arrieta (3.83 DRA, 2.91 ERA) gets the start opposite the Brewers’ Zach Davies (3.47, 3.87, still one misspelled first name). The television broadcast is on the Ol’ Number Nine, WGN. The radio broadcast, as always, is on 670 AM The Score.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports