Cubs push to the playoffs begins

PITTSBURGH – Sixteen of 58.

That’s how many games the Chicago Cubs have left against the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, their two main competitors for wild-card positions. The New York Mets are part of that group, but the Cubs already swept the season series against them. So now their sights are set on more than just a winning record as their weekend takedown of the Milwaukee Brewers has set them up for a dramatic finish to the season.

The Cubs hold their fate in their own hands as they have a favorable schedule with home games throughout the dog days of August while the Giants have a brutal stretch starting with this weekend’s series against the Cubs. San Francisco will play 26 straight against plus-.500 teams, which is the exact same number of games the Cubs have the entire rest of the season against plus-.500. The Philadelphia Phillies proved in sweeping the Cubs recently any team can beat any other on a given night or series, but the closer we get to the offseason the more likely those sub-par teams won’t be as focused. The Cubs should take advantage just as they did in Milwaukee.

So maybe the only questions are can the Cubs hold up against the playoff tested teams, and are their rookies ready for the pressure of a postseason race?

By the end of this week we may know if the Milwaukee series set the Cubs up for some big things to come or if the results were a mirage generated from the timing of the trade deadline where the Brewers ripped up their offense. Will the step up in class prove too much?

As for the youth on the team, it feels like several of their young guys already hit a wall in July and maybe they’re coming out of it. August is usually the month for that but with rookies it may come earlier. Addison Russell is reborn with his new batting stance, driving the ball with a leg kick we haven’t seen before while playing lights-out at second base.

“He thinks he can hit every ball hard,” manager Joe Maddon said over the weekend.

Jorge Soler also looks more comfortable at the plate while Kyle Schwarber isn’t showing any signs of rookie nerves. That leave Kris Bryant, whose hustle play on Sunday to get to second base on his run-scoring single is yet another reminder he’s a winning player despite some struggles at the plate. You don’t worry about Bryant. There will be a hot streak in him to come or at the very least he’ll contribute to winning games. That’s all Maddon asks of his players. Just contribute.

Shortstop Starlin Castro could be a key player for the Cubs down the stretch. Unless there’s some radical moving of the chess pieces in order to sit him once Miguel Montero comes back, Castro’s first job is to play solid defense. There may never be a more confounding player in the field. He made glorious defensive plays against the Brewers then almost cost them the finale on Sunday, making an error on a routine play with two outs in the ninth. It’s impossible for the shortstop not to be a key in a playoff push, right? Is Castro up for it?

The pitching staff got a boost from the additions of Tommy Hunter and Dan Haren. Their rotation has been solid most of the season, and the bullpen has mostly been good as well. A hiccup here or there is expected, but a healthy relief staff will be a huge key. Maddon has been cognizant of their workload – same with his position players. We’ll see if his early season use of all of his players pays off now.

As for Maddon, calls to win manager of the year haven’t started but they may soon. No team has ever made the playoffs playing four rookie position players on a regular or even semi-regular basis. If the Cubs just come close Maddon should probably win the award; if they actually beat out the world champions or another perennial playoff contender then start building the statue now.

All the pieces are in place for a great finish. The Brewers helped make sure of that, allowing the Cubs to reach 10 games over .500 for the first time. Now they have to do the rest. It starts in Pittsburgh where, according to ESPN Stats and Information, the Cubs have averaged a run more per game against the Pirates than the rest of the league. They’re four back of the first wild card spot with three to play this week against the team ahead of them.

It feels like the playoffs start on Monday.