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Cubs' magical week is almost too good to be true

CHICAGO -- With a new hero and new narrative every game, a script recapping the Chicago Cubs' season would get turned down by Hollywood.

Sunday capped an incredible week in which the team answered any and all early season questions by beating up on two National League contenders, sweeping both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Washington Nationals.

The Cubs saved their best for last as Sunday’s 4-3, 13-inning win was memorable for so many reasons -- starting with Javier Baez hitting a game-winning home run. This is the same Baez who has become so valuable that he could play three different infield positions possibly better than the current starter there. But it was his bat -- with two strikes -- that ended this game.

Still, Baez was the dessert to the main course, as this should be remembered as the Joe Maddon game. Every button the Cubs manager pushed worked to perfection.

Maddon emptied his bench long before extra innings came, but it never came back to haunt him. No pitchers were needed in the outfield and Baez didn’t have to be called upon to catch (he’s No.3 on the depth chart).

Maddon let reliever Trevor Cahill bat to lead off the seventh inning with the Cubs trailing 3-1. Cahill singled to start a two-run, game-tying rally. It was a rally in which Maddon had struggling right fielder Jayson Heyward sacrifice for just the second time in his career and first since 2013, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. Heyward laid down a perfect one to advance two runners before Kris Bryant tied the game with a single.

But Maddon’s greatest moves came in extra innings, walking MVP Bryce Harper twice with men on first and second and two outs in a tie game. Two different relievers retired Ryan Zimmerman, who followed Harper in the order. The strategy worked to perfection as Zimmerman left 14 men on base.

"Why tempt fate like that?" Maddon said after the game smiling. "If the other guy gets you, that’s fine. I have no problem with that whatsoever. ... I know he’s [Harper] not as hot as he can be coming into this series, but you don’t want to get him hot."

Harper walked six times and was hit by a pitch, setting all sorts of milestones throughout the weekend as the Cubs simply would not let him beat them. Then again, no one is beating the Cubs these days as their 24-6 record is the best after 30 games since the World Series-winning 1984 Detroit Tigers.

Maddon was asked when his team’s record might start to seem surreal.

"Hasn’t it?" he smirked. "You have to look inside of a season to see that kind of a stretch. When it occurs at the beginning of the season it really stands out."

Maddon and the Cubs have the Midas touch right now, and Sunday starter Jake Arrieta really hasn’t gotten going yet. That’s saying something considering he’s already thrown a no-hitter and is 6-0 with a 1.13 ERA. But he failed to earn the win Sunday, lasting only five innings and relying on his teammates -- relievers Cahill (3 innings pitched), Adam Warren (2 IP), Justin Grimm (2 IP) and Travis Wood (1 IP) -- to pick him up. Four relievers, eight innings and not one run scored off them.

"You have to pitch well to pull something like that off against good competition, and we have," Maddon said of the back-to-back sweeps.

But let’s not take anything away from the hitters. From Tommy La Stella to Bryant to Ryan Kalish -- yes, Ryan Kalish -- they came through this week when they needed to. Baez is just the latest Cub to take the necessary steps to become a reliable major leaguer. Maligned by injuries and crazy swings, he’s as valuable to Maddon now as anyone is.

"That had rockets on it," Maddon said of Baez's game-winning homer. "That was really well struck."

Asked over and over what the key to this whole thing has been, including the perfect week, Maddon knows his answer might not play to the cynical.

"They just come ready to play," he said. "I know that sounds way too simplistic, but they do. They’re ready to play and they complement each other so well.

"The one thing that sums it up, and I mean this ... our guys were in that [Sunday] game to the last drop. Long game like that, we’ve been playing well, you could just mail it in, but our guys were into that game to the very last drop."

Why wouldn’t they be? They’re having too much fun as they’ve won games in every way possible. Anthony Rizzo was asked if this was about the best full week of regular-season baseball he's had as a Cub (at least in an April/May kind of a sense).

"Has to be, right?" Rizzo answered. "It’s early though. ... We just played really good baseball for the week. Today was icing on top."

They’ve played good baseball since about the last week of spring training and haven’t stopped. On Sunday, the only thing to lament was Arrieta not getting his seventh win, though the Cubs won for the 20th consecutive time in the regular season when he has been on the mound -- and it was mostly due to to the genius of Maddon.

"Year 2 is easier to vibe to the same frequency as him [Maddon]," Rizzo said, using his manager’s vernacular. "We don’t really wrap our head around it [the team's record], but it is a good start."

It’s more than a good start -- it’s one of the best in major league history, with no end in sight. The Cubs got through the gauntlet of contending teams this week by a combined score of 45-21. Sunday’s finale was the icing on the cake, led by a manager willing to try it all.

“We did what we thought we had to do today, and it happened to work,” Maddon said. “To the last moment, everyone was there to win the game."

Harper can have his walks, but the Cubs have their wins.