CHICAGO -- Never mind what the calendar says. The postseason began Thursday night for the Cubs.
The Cubs opened a one-game lead in the National League Central over the idle Brewers, and reduced their magic number to three, by beating the Pirates, 3-0, behind rookie David Bote's two-run triple and Jonathan Lester's six impressive innings. With three regular-season games remaining, the earliest the Cubs can clinch the division is Saturday.
"We've made the playoffs, and nobody in the clubhouse is satisfied with that," Lester said. "I don't think that's an arrogance -- we all expect to win the division. That's not a knock on the other teams in our division. We feel that's one of our goals. Hopefully, that comes to fruition this weekend, and we'll celebrate then."
If the Cubs (93-66) can win the Central, they'd get a mini break before opening the Division Series on Oct. 4 at Wrigley Field. With their win and the Braves' loss Thursday, the Central champion will earn the No. 1 seed and face the winner of the Wild Card Game in the NLDS. If the Cubs and Brewers (92-67) end with the same record, they would play a tiebreaker on Monday at Wrigley Field. The losing team would host the Wild Card Game on Tuesday.
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With all of that at stake, Cubs manager Joe Maddon decided now was the time for his postseason message, one of three he gives to the players over the course of the year.
"It's not going to be a speech -- it's not going to be rousing," Maddon said of his pregame talk. "I just want to go over the things that have been happening and see if we can adjust our method of thinking and play with the verve and joy that we always do. Let's anticipate positive."
Lester missed it because he was preparing for his start.
"It was probably a normal Joe meeting, very positive," Lester said. "We just have to keep showing up every day. The talent on the field speaks for itself. If we keep grinding away, the results will be there."
If the Cubs do have to play a Wild Card Game, Lester would be in line to start it. He escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first, survived an 11-pitch at-bat against Pirates starter Trevor Williams, and scattered three hits over six innings. Lester also helped himself in the fourth when he singled and scored on Daniel Murphy's single. Lester picked up his 18th win, tied with the Nationals' Max Scherzer for the most in the NL.
"He battled," Maddon said of Lester. "He showed his mettle there tonight."
The Cubs would prefer to avoid a one-game playoff. In 2015, they beat the Pirates in the Wild Card Game behind Jacob Arrieta's shutout.
"It is an awkward night," Maddon said of the Wild Card Game. "You're starting at the end in the beginning. It is the seventh game. You have to play one of your better games, you have to pitch well. You want to avoid it. Our objective now is to get this thing righted over the next couple days and avoid that scenario completely."
Kyle Schwarber knows what he'd prefer.
"The Wild Card Game can maybe take a couple years off your life," Schwarber said. "It's an exciting game and a very good game for the game of baseball, but to actually be in it, it's very high stress. We'd definitely rather be in the [Division Series] right away."
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MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Rookie ball: Schwarber led off the Chicago second with a fly ball to right-center, which appeared to be catchable. Center fielder Starling Marte looked to have called for the ball, but right fielder Jose Osuna came charging over and the ball dropped in front of Marte, just shy of the warning track.
Schwarber was credited with a single, and Ian Happ then singled. Williams, who entered with a 1.00 ERA in 11 starts since the All-Star break, then struck out the next two batters, but Bote lined a triple down the left-field line on the seventh pitch of his at-bat to drive in both runners. It was Bote's first extra-base hit since Sept. 14 against the Reds. He's been clutch, batting .323 (20-for-62) with two outs.
"Good job by Schwarber and Happ to get on base there, putting the pressure on early," Bote said. "I got a good pitch to hit, got it down the line."
What happened on the Schwarber ball?
"Miscommunication, lack of communication. Either one, it's a non-catch and it's a ball we need to put away," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Escape artist: Reliever C.J. Edwards took over in the eighth and walked Marte on four pitches. That prompted first baseman Anthony Rizzo to quickly run over to the mound to talk to Edwards. Josh Bell reached on a fielding error by Bote, but Edwards got Francisco Cervelli to hit into a double play, and Osuna flied out to center to end the inning. As they walked off the field, Rizzo gave Edwards a hug.
"I just told him to get the next couple of guys out, that's all," Rizzo said. "He's one of the best relievers in the game. Everyone goes through bumps in the road and he's going to get a lot of big outs for us this weekend and moving forward. He's going to be a big part of what we're going to do here."
Maddon noticed it, too.
"The guys understand that [Edwards] pitching like [Edwards] is what we need to advance through the whole tournament," Maddon said. "You saw how they reacted after he got the out. Bully for our guys to recognize that and support a teammate."
Jesse Chavez entered in the ninth and worked around a two-out single to record his fifth save of the season.
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The Cubs drew 38,415 fans on Thursday and now have topped the 3 million mark at home for the third consecutive season and 11th time in franchise history (3,023,138). The Cubs still have three games remaining at Wrigley this weekend against the Cardinals.
HE SAID IT
"It's all hands on deck, it's all hands on deck over there [with the Cardinals]. Look at where they've come from -- from firing their manager to being in contention for the second Wild Card spot is unbelievable. You can't discredit what they've done in that clubhouse with a new manager. Hopefully, they run out of gas this weekend and we come in tomorrow and win tomorrow. That's the biggest game." -- Rizzo, on the weekend series vs. St. Louis
"It should be pretty hot around here." -- Maddon, on the final series
Kyle Hendricks (13-11, 3.49 ERA) will open a critical three-game series against the Cardinals on Friday (1:20 p.m. CT) at Wrigley Field. Hendricks is 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA and 28 strikeouts in his last five starts. So far, he's 6-7 with a 3.56 ERA at Wrigley. This season, he's 2-0 with a 4.08 ERA in three starts vs. the Cardinals, but they have a .286 batting average against him. St. Louis will counter with Adam Wainwright (2-3, 4.08 ERA).