By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Winning the NL Central brings no surprise for the Cubs, who have held on to first place since the fifth game of the season and never relinquished it. The closest the Cardinals or Pirates after Memorial Day was 6.5 games, and the Cubs entered Thursday evening’s home contest against the Brewers needing just a win or a Cardinals loss to clinch the division crown.
The next step on the Cubs’ to-do list will be to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. Entering play Thursday, the team holds a seven-game lead in the all-important loss column over Washington with 17 games to play, with Chicago’s magic number sitting at 10 to clinch home field through the NLCS.
“There is still plenty to play for,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “There are huge advantages to having the best record in the league. You get to play the wild-card team, you have home-field advantage. Those things are important to us, so we need to keep playing. Even when we accomplish that, I don’t think this is the type of team to roll over or stagnate.”
Staying rested and at the same time rust-resistant is the job and the goal of manager Joe Maddon and his staff. The tricky part is manipulating his starting pitchers’ innings and pitch counts.
“We are going to try to stay right around a 100 pitches,” Maddon said about his starters pitch counts over the next 17 games. “Like (Jon Lester) had 104 (Wednesday). He made the appeal to go further. I had to say, ‘No you are not going to do that.’ That number will kind of be the benchmark for them. For the most part keep right at that number and also be aware of how you got there. They know this going into it now. When you know that (pitch count) going into it, sometimes that promotes pitching more to contact, not trying to be so fine. Our guys are smart enough to do that.”
The position players will all get days and partial games off going forward. Hitting slumps shouldn’t be a problem for this self-motivated group. The players have been on their own with optional batting practice a part of the daily routine the entire season.
“I believe this clubhouse has a lot of winning players in it,” Epstein said. “We have a good mix of people. I think they complement each other. Joe certainly sets the tone for them to be themselves. That is easier to do because we really trust who they are and that they will perform when it matters most. We are really happy with the makeup of the club.”
The Cubs’ 17-game division lead going into Thursday’s game was their biggest in the division/league standings since the end of the 1907 season. They’ll be the team with a target on its back entering the postseason.
“Why would you want to work somewhere there are no expectations?” Maddon said when asked about being the targeted team. “I think all of our guys coming up as players are trained to want to play in championship games. You want people to say you are good and that they are relying on you tonight. Expectations are really good. Why would you want to work anywhere that was not a part of the culture?”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.