USA TODAY US Edition

Cubs’ legacy tied to Series ti­tle

With divi­sion all but locked up, Chicago wants World Series win

- Bob Night­en­gale bnighten@usatoday.com USA TO­DAY Sports Sports · College Sports · Cactus League · MLB Baseball · Baseball · Chicago Cubs · Golden State Warriors · Warren Buffett · Milwaukee Brewers · Baltimore Orioles · Milwaukee · Joe Maddon · St. Louis Cardinals · Wrigley Field · National League (Baseball) · Jon Lester · Cy Young · Donald Trump · Hillary Clinton · United States of America · Franklin D. Roosevelt · Theodore Roosevelt · Theodore Roosevelt · National Basketball Association · Cleveland Cavaliers · Kris Bryant · Washington Nationals · Washington Nationals · Washington · Ryan Braun · National League Central · Anthony Rizzo · Miguel Montero · Addison Russell · Jason Heyward

ST. LOUIS They are the Golden State War­riors in spikes, Spring­steen on the di­a­mond and War­ren Buf­fett with a score­card. The Chicago Cubs are base­ball royalty, the ul­ti­mate in per­fec­tion with a gaudy 93-52 record and on the brink of tak­ing the first gi­ant step to their most mag­i­cal sea­son in 108 years.

“Who’s go­ing to beat them?” Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers out­fielder Ryan Braun said. “That team is so good. They’re just so com­plete. It’s scary how good they are with all of their depth.” The most fright­en­ing as­pect? “These guys are good, but we’re go­ing to get bet­ter,” Cubs man­ager Joe Mad­don said. “I like what we’ve done a lot this year, and I think it’s been very good, but there’s defi- nitely room for growth and im­prove­ment.

“I ab­so­lutely be­lieve next year is go­ing to get bet­ter.”

Is it per­mit­ted, kosher or even law­ful to ac­tu­ally dis­cuss back-to-back cham­pi­onships with a fran­chise that hasn’t won the World Series since 1908?

“I don’t think we feel the pres­sure like Golden State did, where you’re sup­posed to go out and dom­i­nate every night,” said Cubs catcher David Ross, who home­red and

threw out two baserun­ners Wed­nes­day in the 7-0 vic­tory against the St. Louis Car­di­nals. “The fans and me­dia have got us go­ing to the World Series al­ready. But, come on, one step at a time.”

It might be one small step for the Cubs but a gi­ant step for Cubkind Thurs­day when they can coro­nate their new party room at Wrigley Field with a vic­tory against the Brew­ers. Their magic num­ber to clinch the Na­tional League Cen­tral dropped to one af­ter Jon Lester, one of three Cy Young Award can­di­dates on the staff, suf­fo­cated the Car­di­nals lineup, al­low­ing three hits over eight in­nings.

Go ahead and crank up the vol­ume, turn on the disco lights and dance the night away in what the Cubs en­vi­sion to be the first of four rau­cous celebratio­ns over the next six weeks.

“You’ve seen our team,” said Lester, who is 17-4 with a 2.40 ERA, in­clud­ing a 1.47 ERA in the sec­ond half. “We don’t like to party too much. I’m sure it will be low-key.”

“It’s been the Car­di­nals’ divi­sion for so long,” said first base­man An­thony Rizzo, who hit two homers Wed­nes­day to join Hall of Famer Billy Wil­liams as the only Cubs left-handed hit­ters with mul­ti­ple 30-homer, 100-RBI sea­sons. “It’s go­ing to feel re­ally good.”

The team ev­ery­one en­vi­sioned for great­ness since the start of spring train­ing, with more na­tional TV ap­pear­ances than Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton, has not only em­braced the tar­get, as the play­ers’ T-shirts read, but has al­most taunted the idea of pres­sure.

The Cubs spent six months tour­ing the coun­try as the great­est base­ball team in Amer­ica, and now that they’re on the brink of be­ing the first team to be in­vited to the Oc­to­ber post­sea­son gala, the only ques­tion re­main­ing is whether any­one can pos­si­bly stop them from win­ning their first World Series ti­tle since the Teddy Roo­sevelt ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Yep, just like that Golden State squad that won more games than any other team in NBA his­tory, only to lose Game 7 of the NBA Fi­nals to the Cleve­land Cava­liers.

“I don’t think we feel like we’re any­where like those guys,” said third base­man Kris Bryant, the lead­ing can­di­date to win the NL MVP award. “The War­riors were so dom­i­nant last year and had all of those great play­ers.

“I know we have the play­ers, too, but you see what hap­pened to them. They lost when it counted. So it didn’t re­ally mat­ter what you do dur­ing the sea­son if you can’t fin­ish it off.”

In­deed, de­spite all the flashy num­bers and fran­chise records, the Cubs know they will ul­ti­mately be judged by their per­for­mance in Oc­to­ber.

“So, no pres­sure on us, right?” catcher Miguel Mon­tero said, laugh­ing. “I know we have the great­est run dif­fer­en­tial in like 100 years. We’re do­ing stuff that hasn’t hap­pened since 1930. But we don’t fol­low those sto­ries.

“At the end of the day, all I want to do is win the last game of the sea­son, that last World Series game, and that will get ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion.

“That’s how we want to be re­mem­bered, as World Series cham­pi­ons.”

The Cubs, with a 17-game lead in the divi­sion and a 61⁄ 2- game lead for home-field ad­van­tage in the NL play­offs, are base­ball’s most com­plete team.

They have the finest pitch­ing staff in the game, yield­ing a .210 bat­ting av­er­age, which would be their low­est op­pos­ing bat­ting av­er­age since 1880, when they were called the Chicago White Stock­ings. Their start­ing ro­ta­tion has a 2.89 ERA, with the Washington Na­tion­als hav­ing the sec­ond-best mark at 3.48. It would be the Cubs’ low­est ERA since 1963. Their WHIP (walks and hits al­lowed per in­ning) is a mi­nus­cule 1.05, which would be the low­est by a Cubs team since at least 1913.

The de­fense and its range have been un­canny, with the Cubs yield­ing a .255 bat­ting av­er­age on balls in play, ac­cord­ing to FanGraphs, the best by any ma­jor league team in at least 30 years. This com­bi­na­tion of pitch­ing and de­fense has re­sulted in 488 op­pos­ing runs all sea­son, 50 fewer than the run­ner-up Na­tion­als. They’re on pace for the fewest runs al­lowed in a non-strike sea­son in Cubs his­tory since 1945.

And let’s not for­get the of­fense. They have two MVP can­di­dates, Bryant (37 homers, 95 RBI) and Rizzo (31 homers, 101 RBI), and three in­field­ers with at least 20 homers and 90 RBI when you throw in 22-year-old short­stop Ad­di­son Rus­sell (20 homers, 91 RBI.) They grind op­pos­ing pitch­ers to death, lead­ing the ma­jor leagues with 585 walks — 18 more than all of last sea­son — and are on pace for the high­est total in fran­chise his­tory. And they’ve sig­nif­i­cantly cut down their strike­outs to 1,211 com­pared with a fran­chise-record 1,518 last sea­son.

They’re not just win­ning, they’re also blud­geon­ing teams. They’ve outscored op­po­nents by 234 runs, the great­est dif­fer­en­tial pace in the wild-card era.

Per­haps most im­pres­sive is that, even the few games they do lose, they’re never blown out. They’ve lost four games since July 10 by more than four runs. They are 41-17 dur­ing that stretch and are on pace to win 104 games, last ac­com­plished in 1910 dur­ing the fran­chise’s glory days.

“Com­ing into the sea­son there were so many ex­pec­ta­tions heaped upon us and pres­sure was ap­plied,” Mad­don said. “That’s what cre­ated the tar­get as far as I’m con­cerned. ... Once we get to the point where we have clinched, we will set­tle into a rou­tine that I’d want to be­lieve will keep them sharp and rested at the same time.

“Put the gas pedal down or hit the brakes a lit­tle bit. We’ll just wait and see.”

The lux­ury the Cubs have is that they’re so deep and tal­ented, no one re­ally needs an ex­tended rest. They’re so ver­sa­tile that Javier Baez has started every po­si­tion in the in­field. Bryant has played four po­si­tions, in­clud­ing 32 starts in left field. Out­fielder Ja­son Hey­ward awaits the day when he’s called upon to play first base, and Ross has taken ground balls at third base.

“We keep hear­ing about all of these num­bers, and this is the first time we’ve done this or that, but, hon­estly, we re­ally don’t spend a lot of time on that,” Cubs gen­eral man­ager Jed Hoyer said.

“We know the only ‘first-time since’ num­ber that mat­ters is the big one.”

Yep, 1908, end­ing 108 years of fu­til­ity.

“That’s the one that peo­ple will re­mem­ber you for,” Lester said.

The Holy Grail of sports cham­pi­onships awaits.

 ?? JEFF CURRY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ??
JEFF CURRY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS
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 ?? JEFF CURRY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ??
JEFF CURRY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS
 ?? JEFF CURRY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ??
JEFF CURRY, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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