By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Like the famed ivy that changes colors with the season, the crack of the bat is becoming another unmistakable Wrigley Field tradition.
Over and over, that sound has echoed through the Friendly Confines this season. Wednesday’s 9-2 win over the Reds brought that sound from the bats of Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant, with baseballs crushed into the north side night — like so many before from Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez.
Now 42 games over .500 at 97-55, the only questions when it comes to these Cubs are to their playoff opponent and who’s the National League MVP and how many games will they win in the regular season. They’re closing in on the century mark.
“I’ve never achieved it on the winning side; I’ve achieved it on the loss side,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, reflecting on his first year managing the Devil Rays. “It doesn’t feel too good.”
Maddon’s Cubs have brought good feelings all summer long. The team’s core has been well documented, rightfully so. There have been so many poster boys in this magical season, with perhaps even more coming in October.
Yet, through all the Cubs’ triumphs along this ride, with so many contributing each night, more heroes could emerge.
While Bryant and Rizzo battle for MVP honors and Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks look to follow Jake Arrieta as the Cy Young winner, several Cubs have been quietly going about their business and hoping to find top form.
The struggles of Jason Heyward and Miguel Montero have been well documented — two Opening Day starters who fell out of favor for Joe Maddon’s lineups. What if they stay hot headed into October?
Heyward has floated around .230 all season long, though Wednesday was indicative of his potential. He ripped three balls to center field, only getting one to fall. Heyward’s season at the plate has been nothing other than a great disappointment, but there are some big hits in that bat.
Montero is a different story. His season has turned around entirely during the month of September, with the 33-year-old catcher likely securing his spot on the playoff roster. Montero is hitting .343 during the month after a 3-for-5, three-RBI night on Wednesday.
Now, the narrative has shifted from whether Montero will make the roster to how important he could be. If Montero’s bat can stay hot heading into October, Maddon will be calling his number quite a bit.
“It’s wonderful,” Maddon said of Heyward and Montero contributing to wins. “These guys like this time of year. This is where you talk about ‘September brings its own energy.’ These guys are not fatigued, they’re actually excited and they’re doing a lot of good things.”
The Cubs could have more in store, too. Veteran catcher David Ross joked Tuesday that an injury to left-hander Jon Lester meant his job was gone, but Maddon trusts Ross for his defensive value and solid at-bats. Don’t underestimate yourself, Grandpa.
Off the bench, Maddon can look to Jorge Soler, Chris Coghlan, Matt Szczur or Albert Almora Jr. Tommy La Stella returned from his hiatus in time to help the Cubs finish off their division title. Maddon and the “nerds” from the front office met on Wednesday to discuss roster possibilities.
Maddon’s only issue with the pitching staff this time of year is that his starters go so deep into the game, his bullpen arms don’t get enough work. He pulled John Lackey after just 87 pitches Wednesday to get three different pitchers work for two innings in a seven-run game.
So, which Cy Young contender gets the start for Game 1 of the NLDS? Which reliever bridges from the starter to flamethrower Aroldis Chapman? Man, it’s good to be the Cubs.
Executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer stocked Maddon with every tool needed to win a World Series. This is as complete of a team as you’ll find in the postseason.
More meetings will follow as the Cubs work to finalize their playoff roster. They’re needed, too, because many players are making the decisions difficult. Heyward and Montero are proving their places once again, with hopes building that they can contribute regularly come October. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ bench versatility offers many directions for Maddon to utilize.
“I don’t know exactly how it’s going to work,” Maddon said. “But it’s good to see all these guys kind of peaking at the right time.”
This memorable 2016 season will be remembered for the herorics of Bryant and Rizzo, the rise of Russell and Baez, the clutch pitching performances of Arrieta, Lester and Hendricks and so much more. And that’s only the regular season — the playoffs could have much more in store.
If the Cubs’ other guys can deliver too, October will be something special.