At this time last year, not only had the Chicago Cubs formally clinched the NL Central nearly a week ago, but they’d clinched it for all intents and purposes for a solid month or two. Everything at this point was focused on the coming playoffs. The chance to finally do it.
This year, we’re not so much focused on the same things, not only because the Cubs did finally do it (now they can do it again!), but also because the Cubs are still several days or more away from clinching the NL Central. If it happens at all.
Now, they head to Milwaukee tonight, to face the very team that’s chasing them in the Central, for a four-game series that very well may determine the outcome in the division this year. Consider it the playoffs before the playoffs, because, essentially, it is.
Here’s the good news: the Cubs come into this “playoff” series with an enormous advantage in the form if a 3.5-game lead. Consider the possible outcomes of this four-game series.
- Cubs sweep: the Cubs clinch the NL Central. (I am assuming the Cardinals do not stage a miracle comeback, though I suppose it’s possible.)
- Cubs win 3 of 4: the Cubs extend their lead over the Brewers to 5.5 games with 7 games left to play, and their magic number is just 2.
- Cubs and Brewers split: the magic number is just 4 with those 7 games to play, and even if the Cubs lost all 7, they could still win the Central if the Brewers don’t go at least .500 in their final 6 games.
- Brewers win 3 of 4: the Cubs’ lead is cut to 1.5 games. Not good, but still a healthy margin (two in the loss column) with only a week left to go.
- Brewers sweep: the Cubs now trail in the Central by 0.5 games, but are tied in the loss column.
Thanks to that Pirates walk-off win over the Brewers last night, those scenarios look so much better than they would have with a mere 2.5-game lead. Just like it was a couple weekends ago against the Brewers, the mantra is JUST. DON’T. GET. SWEPT.
Truly, any of the other three outcomes are acceptable, and even a sweep isn’t going to leave the Cubs definitely out in the cold. That is to say, the Cubs have put themselves in a really nice position entering this series.
… but why mess around? The sooner the Cubs can clinch, the better spot they’ll be in to rest up and line their guys up for the postseason. These Brewers are hungry, and are battling for a Wild Card spot, too (just 1.0 game out). They will be treating this series like the playoffs. The Cubs would do well to do the same.