Recent rise has Cubs resembling '16 form

September 28th, 2017

They knew it was going to be difficult to improve on the script they followed in producing a masterpiece last season. The Cubs were right about that, like just about everything else the last few years.

• Shop for Cubs NL Central champs gear

But this is becoming the greatest era in the history of one of baseball's oldest franchises, and the struggle to repeat as World Series champions has generated another highly intriguing chapter.

• Cubs net Central title, 3rd straight October trip

The Cubs have clinched back-to-back National League Central titles, giving themselves a shot at becoming the first team since the Yankees of 1998-2000 to repeat as World Series champs. They probably won't be favored to win every series they play, as they were in 2016, yet the Cubs pose a serious threat to the Nationals and Dodgers, who rolled through the regular season.

Complete 2017 postseason schedule

The Cubs' postseason run will begin against the Nats in the best-of-five NL Division Series presented by T-Mobile next Friday, Oct. 6, airing on TBS.

Never mind that Joe Maddon's team qualified for the postseason after seven other teams this time around.

• Cubs raise 'W' flag on Busch Stadium mound

It has the best record in the NL since the All-Star break, with a 46-24 mark that quietly trails only the Indians among Major League teams. Over the last two seasons, the Cubs have won five of their six rounds in October and November.

's three-run homer triggered Wednesday's clinching 5-1 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, giving the Cubs a 237-145 record since July 29, 2015. They have played their best late in the season, peaking as other teams are showing signs of wear and tear.

Credit the rosters of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, the management of Maddon but especially the will and confidence of players like , , , and , who thrive in the spotlight.

The Cubs are winners, and they may have shown that even more this season, bouncing back from a 43-45 first half, than they did in cruising to 103 victories last year.

The Cubs have 12 players who have been around for their three consecutive trips to the postseason, including the entire infield and starters , Arrieta and Lester. They've made their success look easy at times, but it is never guaranteed, and this season is a prime example.

The Cubs have spent more time chasing the Brewers, Reds and Cardinals than in first place, and before 's start in Baltimore on July 16, Chicago trailed the Brewers by 5 1/2 games. As much as anything else, it was Epstein's trade to acquire the low-maintenance left-hander from the White Sox that jump-started the World Series defense.

The Cubs have gone 9-4 in Quintana's starts, minimizing the impact of being without Arrieta, Lester and at various points. They were eighth in the NL with a 4.66 rotation ERA in the first half but since the break have gotten a 3.45 ERA from their starting pitchers, which leads the NL. Arrieta (2.28) and Hendricks (2.34) are first and second in ERA, respectively, since the All-Star break (minimum 60 innings).

Maddon points to Quintana's arrival as a difference-maker.

"I think it figures in more than people may even realize,'' Maddon said. "The game in Baltimore was a really big game for us. The new guy comes out and pitches great. He also set a standard in the way he did it, I thought -- strike-throwing, aggressive, grabbed the lead and held onto it, threw strikes with his fastball, his breaking ball when he needed to, [had a] calm demeanor. Everything he did that day was what you want everybody else to watch.''

The Cubs sent seven players to the 2016 All-Star Game presented by MasterCard, including their entire infield and since-departed leadoff man . Closer was the Cubs' only rep at this summer's game in Miami.

That's fitting, given the strength-in-numbers approach from their lineup.

With the arrival of switch-hitting rookie , the platoon possibilities presented by and Albert Almora Jr. and the continued development of hitters like , Bryant and Baez, the Cubs have increased both the balance and depth of their lineup.

They're averaging 5.8 runs per game in the second half, which leads the Major Leagues. They lead in almost every category except home runs (second to Arizona among NL teams).

Rizzo, Baez and have been the key pieces to the lineup. They've combined to hit 41 second-half home runs (led by Schwarber's 16), and Baez filled in admirably at shortstop while Russell was recovering from plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

The Cubs passed the Brewers to move into first place on July 26 and never let it go again. They'll be the NL's No. 3 seed, meaning they would have home-field advantage in the NLCS presented by Camping World only if the NL Wild Card team upsets the Dodgers.

This marks the first time since 1906-08 that the Cubs have gone to the postseason three seasons in a row. That's impressive, but the best part is that there's no end in sight.