CHICAGO -- Not that it should come as a surprise, but just in case you were concerned that the Chicago Cubs would go on cruise control after clinching the National League Central, they have done anything but that.
The Cubs’ bats were ringing up and down the order Wednesday in a 9-2 rout of Cincinnati that finished a quietly dominant, methodical sweep of the last-place Reds. The onslaught backed an efficient start from John Lackey (10-8), who needed just 87 pitches to get through seven innings. With the win, Lackey joined his four rotation mates with double-digit wins.
“The same old John that goes every fifth day,” third baseman Kris Bryant said. “He’s a competitor, he’s intense, fun to watch. You know what to expect from him. He wants to get quick outs, and as a defender, you’ve got to be ready.”
Chicago had its ninth game of the season with at least 15 hits (all wins) and had 21 batters reach base. The Cubs outscored the Reds 20-5 in the three-game series. The most encouraging thing is that even though the Cubs don’t have any big regular-season fish left to fry, they keep playing like they do.
“They are really working on things,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You can see them up there working. They’re not just up there taking at-bats. They’re up there working on specific things. That’s the part I take away [from] watching them.”
With the win, the Cubs reached 97 victories for the season, which matched the 2008 club. Their number to clinch the NL’s top seed dropped to two. The Cubs can lock that down, hit the 100-win mark at home and possibly knock their biggest rival from the playoff derby when a weekend series against the St. Louis Cardinals begins Friday.
“I think definitely the intensity will be there,” Bryant said. “I think any time you play them, it’s a fun series. You get a lot of Cardinals fans down here. We want to play everybody tough.”
Lackey was making his fourth appearance since a DL stint stemming from a tight shoulder. He has gone seven innings his latest two times out, and the Cubs have won in six of his past eight starts. In other words, he’s right on schedule for the playoffs.
“I definitely feel like I got better as the game went along,” Lackey said. “Kind of figured out how they were approaching the game. Made a nice adjustment. [Miguel Montero] caught a great game and had a couple of big hits for me.”
Montero was one of three Cubs with three hits, and he drove in three runs, part of a recent surge from the formerly struggling veteran.
“I feel good,” Montero said. “Confidence is there. It’s something that you have to take full advantage of while it’s there. Because you don’t know how long it’s going to last.”
All eight starting position players had at least one hit, albeit against a rotten Reds group that has allowed more homers than any pitching staff in big league history. The Reds gave up two more Wednesday, a solo shot from Dexter Fowler in the fourth and a monster shot from Bryant in the seventh, a towering blast to left that disappeared into the night somewhere over Waveland Avenue.
It was Bryant’s 38th homer of the season, and it raised his RBI count to 99, his total as a rookie last season. Bryant was honored as the NL’s top rookie last season, but as good as he was then, his game keeps expanding. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the league.
“For me, this year is a completely different attitude from last year,” Bryant said. “To clinch so early and have this time to work on stuff and just kind of tune up for what we hope to be a long playoff run, we’re very fortunate for that. Me, I’m just trying to stick with a good approach and not let the numbers on the scoreboard get to me.”
Bryant pulled within one homer of league-leader Nolan Arenado of Colorado. It’s a battle he’s clearly highly engaged in.
“Honestly, I don’t watch the TV or follow what anybody else is doing,” Bryant said. “Certainly, I hear it from the other guys in here, which is kind of funny. I go home and watch Netflix. I don’t watch any sports. This is the time of the year where you kind of have to go home, relax and don’t worry about what anybody else is doing.”
That’s the Cubs for you. Postseason awards, clinched divisions, statistical milestones -- it's just background buzz, something everyone else clamors on about as they show up every day and pound team after team.
“These guys are young,” Maddon said. “They are not playing fatigued. They look good. For the most part, we didn’t chase pitches. For the most part, I think our strike zones are organized, which tells me they’re in a good place.”