When the Cubs clinched a spot in the postseason earlier this week, the hope was that they might also have the National League Central title wrapped up by now, too. Instead, Chicago heads into the final weekend with a division crown still on the line.
The Cubs' offensive woes persisted in a 7-0 loss to the Pirates on Thursday at PNC Park, dropping the North Siders' record to 32-25 with three games to play against the White Sox. Rather than just playing out the slate, there will now be division and seeding implications for both Chicago teams.
"So far, we've taken step one, as far as what we want to have happen," Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. "Making the postseason. But that's not our end-all goal, it goes without saying."
The Cubs' magic number to clinch over St. Louis is three (combination of Cubs wins and Cardinals losses). The teams split the season series (5-5), so winning percentage within the division would serve as a tiebreaker.
"You can talk. You can work. But these guys have got to believe in themselves," Cubs manager David Ross said. "I believe in them. I've seen these guys do special things in this game for a long time. I have confidence in them."
Besides the division race, here are three Cubs storylines to watch this weekend:
1) Can the lineup get back on track?
The season-long frustrations felt by the Cubs' hitters -- magnified again over the past few days -- manifested again one pitch into Thursday's game. Anthony Rizzo drilled a 114.5 mph line drive to right field, where Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco made the catch.
The Cubs were then no-hit into the sixth inning by Chad Kuhl and finished with just two hits on the afternoon. That gave Chicago eight runs in the four games in Pittsburgh, and five of those came on Monday.
"This hasn't been the greatest hitting season we've ever seen, obviously," Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "It's been a struggle. So I think we've got a couple more games to figure it out and we'll roll with what we've got. We've still been managing to win ballgames.”
During the Cubs' 13-3 start to the season, the offense turned in a .244/.344/.431 slash line as a group. Chicago then turned in a .213/.307/.365 showing as a team leading up to Thursday's effort. The Cubs have 13 runs in their past eight games, in which one of the team's wins was of the 1-0 variety.
"Obviously we're in a very cold stretch right now,” Kipnis said. “We're all looking to turn it around. We know it can be better."
2) Yu Darvish's final Cy Young push
Darvish is scheduled to make his final start of the regular season on Friday, giving him one last tune-up for the postseason and one final chance to strengthen his NL Cy Young Award candidacy.
"What Darvish has been able to do this year -- unbelievable," Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said. "Just picked up right where he was the second half of last season. It's been unbelievable watching him go out there every five days."
The top three candidates right now would appear to be Cincinnati's Trevor Bauer, New York's Jacob deGrom and Darvish.
Bauer has a 1.73 ERA to go along with 2.5 WAR (Fangraphs), 100 strikeouts and 17 walks in 73 innings. For the Mets, deGrom has a 2.14 ERA with 2.6 WAR, 94 strikeouts and 16 walks in 63 innings. Darvish has a 2.22 ERA with 2.7 WAR, 88 strikeouts and 13 walks in 69 innings.
Facing the postseason-bound White Sox will also be a great litmus test of sorts for Darvish on the cusp of October. As things currently stand, Darvish and Hendricks (order to be determined) would be the Cubs' Game 1 and Game 2 starters for the Wild Card Series.
3) Kris Bryant's availability
Bryant's season has been marred by a series of setbacks. There was a minor back issue in Summer Camp and a left elbow issue early in the schedule. He missed time with a stomach bug, and then injured his left wrist and a finger during a dive attempt in August in Cleveland.
It has all added up to diminished production (.195/.283/.301 in 32 games) while Bryant has tried everything possible to stay on the field.
Currently, Bryant is trying to come back from a right oblique issue, which flared on a swing on Monday against the Pirates. The third baseman has been receiving treatment over the past few days and Ross hoped to get him some at-bats this weekend before the playoffs arrive.
"I'm optimistic," Ross said on Wednesday. "Maybe that's just my personality, so don't take that too far. But, he felt better."