Cubs are back in! Playoff berth clinched

September 23rd, 2020

From the first day of Spring Training, the players inside the Cubs' clubhouse placed an importance on this season. Given the backdrop of the past two years, and the uncertainty surrounding the future of the core, winning the 2020 World Series was the unquestioned goal.

The first step arrived on Tuesday night, when the Cubs clinched a spot in the expanded eight-team National League postseason, even with a 3-2 walk-off loss to the Pirates at PNC Park. Chicago's mathematical fate was sealed with the Nationals' sweep of the Phillies in a seven-inning doubleheader in Washington, D.C.

Now, the North Siders can start to focus on putting another World Series trophy next to the one captured in 2016.

"Time is time, and it waits on no one," Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said recently. "We just want to try to make the most of our memories, and I think we're doing a great job of that."

It marks a return to the playoffs for the Cubs after missing out on the October stage in 2019. That contributed to the hiring of new manager David Ross, who became the seventh first-year manager since 1903 to guide the Cubs to the postseason.

Next on Chicago's to-do list is capturing the team's first division title since 2017. Two years ago, the Cubs were closing in on a National League Central crown, but they collapsed down the stretch and then lost in the one-and-done Wild Card Game against the Rockies.

The Cubs, who have reached the playoffs in five of the past six seasons, project to be either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. If Chicago clinches a division title as anticipated, it would host the best-of-three Wild Card Series at Wrigley Field, beginning on Sept. 30.

"It feels great," Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "We've been to the playoffs -- a lot of these guys, our group have been to the playoffs -- and we've gone deep. And, obviously, we've won it. We've gone to the NLCS three times. It takes everyone to win in the playoffs.

"Our whole team, right now, obviously we're not in stride like we want to be offensively, but we've grinded. It's a lot of credit to us for not being in sync for pretty much the whole year and grinding through and getting wins."

That really does sum up the story of this Cubs' season.

The rotation and offense powered a 13-3 start, despite the bullpen struggling mightily. Then as the bullpen found its rhythm and the starters continued to do their part, the lineup labored. Chicago's core hitters -- Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Rizzo -- have underperformed in the limited 60-game slate. A series of injury setbacks have contributed to Bryant's woes.

Through all of those ups and downs, the Cubs have still found ways to stay atop the NL Central, sitting in first place for all but one day so far. Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks have been a dynamic rotation duo. Ian Happ and Heyward have helped save the lineup. Jeremy Jeffress stabilized the bullpen. Alec Mills threw a no-hitter.

"It never goes as you expect, right?" Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said recently. "I think the fact that we've been able to show that mental toughness and we've been able to have different guys step up at different times, I think it is impressive that we're at this point."

So, in a way, it was fitting that Tuesday went the way it did.

Rizzo launched a game-tying two-run homer in the eighth inning, helping make up for the seven shutout innings spun by Pirates lefty Steven Brault. In the ninth, Jacob Stallings belted a walk-off homer against Cubs lefty Andrew Chafin.

Things did not go according to plan, but Chicago celebrated a postseason berth anyway.

"That's part of baseball," Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel said. "Rarely does it seem like everything on a team is firing at all times. And when that does happen, you win the World Series. So hopefully we can do that and make a good run."

After the game, Ross said he took a moment in the clubhouse to thank his players and to express how proud he was of them. In his discussion with reporters, Ross also mentioned each of his coaches by name and lauded the work of other staff members around the team.

"Literally, man," Ross said. "There's a lot of people helping me out and overcoming my mistakes and my shortcomings in a first year as a manager. I definitely played my part, as well, but it's an organizational effort all the way through."

And when the postseason does arrive, Chicago will also welcome the clean statistical slate that comes along with it.

"It doesn't matter who gets it done in October. It doesn't matter how it gets done," Rizzo said. "It's just a matter of staying in the moment, staying with your teammates and being together."

The Cubs accomplished their ultimate goal four years ago. Given all the layers involved right now, the core group wants to experience that together again.

"We're really excited for what lies ahead for this team," Hendricks said.