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Cubs pitching hot, bats not ahead of WC Series

@MLBastian
September 27, 2020

CHICAGO -- The current Cubs core has pieced together one of the greatest stretches in the franchise's long, storied history. Even so, the players do not want the 2016 World Series title to be the only championship collected. "You're never satisfied with just one," Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said.

CHICAGO -- The current Cubs core has pieced together one of the greatest stretches in the franchise's long, storied history. Even so, the players do not want the 2016 World Series title to be the only championship collected.

"You're never satisfied with just one," Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said. "You always want more, more. Sometimes it comes. Sometimes it doesn't. But the group here is a really good group and a lot of talent, so I don't see why we couldn't put more rings on the board."

NL Wild Card Series Game 1 presented by Hankook Tire: Weds., 1 p.m. CT on ABC

The Cubs clinched the 2020 National League Central crown -- the third division title in the past five years -- and will host the Marlins in a best-of-three Wild Card Series at Wrigley Field, starting Wednesday. That is step one to bringing another World Series title to the fans on the North Side.

"They feel like it's not done yet," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "And that there's a great opportunity this year to add to their legacy, continue their legacy and continue to do remarkable things for the Chicago Cubs during this period of sustained success."

How do the Cubs advance out of the Wild Card Series?
One of the biggest reasons behind the Cubs' ability to hold steady atop the division this season was the reliable rotation duo of Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. In this best-of-three format, they also give Chicago a potential edge for advancing to a Division Series.

"Those guys have our full faith and trust," Epstein said. "I think it changes the whole dynamic of how you're looking at that first round."

Darvish has been an ace dating back to the second half of last season, turning in a 2.40 ERA with 211 strikeouts and 21 walks in that span. His showing this season (2.01 ERA and an NL-leading 3.0 WAR, per Fangraphs) have him in the thick of the NL Cy Young Award discussion.

Hendricks does not boast the overpowering arsenal of Darvish, but rather relies on precision, efficiency and weak contact. The righty spun a nine-inning shutout on Opening Day and never looked back, ending with an NL-leading 81 1/3 innings worked to go along with a 2.88 ERA.

Veteran lefty Jon Lester -- who has three World Series rings and a 2.51 ERA in 154 career playoff innings -- would likely take the ball for the Cubs if the opening series reached Game 3.

What does the blueprint for a championship run look like?
Pitching powered the Cubs throughout this abbreviated season, so the expectation should remain that Chicago's arms will be the driving force for a deep October run. That said, pitching depth will be put to the test with no off-days in the Wild Card Series, Division Series and League Championship Series rounds.

So, the Cubs can't only rely on strong pitching for an entire month. What the North Siders really need is for its core group of star hitters to once again hit like stars. Having Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez and Kyle Schwarber getting hot like they can at the plate would completely shift the roster dynamic.

Darvish and Hendricks will have to keep on a roll at the top of the rotation, Lester will need to show his October experience and the back end of the bullpen will require sustained dominance from Craig Kimbrel and Jeremy Jeffress. The blueprint is there, but the pitchers will need support.

What is one reason for concern?
The area to worry about is unquestionably the offense.

The Cubs finished the season with a .220/.318/.387 slash line and a 91 wRC+ as a team. They hit 74 home runs and were 14th in the NL in both contact rate (72.8 percent) and strikeout rate (25.7 percent). The struggles of Báez (57 wRC+), Bryant (76 wRC+) and Schwarber (90 wRC+) played a big role.

"I think we're the No. 1 team out of any team that's going to be in the postseason that's happy about everyone starting back at zero," Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "I've been preaching to the team -- it's what can be. Don't worry about what's already happened. That's already in the past. Let's worry about what's ahead of us."

The Cubs can at least head into October coming off a strong offensive showing in the final series against the White Sox. In the final three games, the North Siders scored 25 runs (after scoring 19 in the previous nine games) and hit nine homers (after hitting eight in the previous 18 games).

"We go into October looking at it as an opportunity," Epstein said. "What is the goal of our offensive group each day in October? It's to put up one more run than the opponent -- whatever that means."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.