Chicago Cubs staying loose, riding momentum

CHICAGO -- Hey, you, Cubs fan. Stop refreshing those playoff odds. Hey, you, Cubs player. Stop scoreboard-watching and sweating your slumps.

Theo Epstein, the most popular man north of 18th Street not named Kyle Schwarber, had a message for you before the Cubs’ most important September in seven years began with a wild, comeback win over the Cincinnati Reds.

“I think there is a momentum at play in September that’s powerful,” the Cubs president said Tuesday. “That’s more powerful than playoff odds and math and things like that that people like to look at this time of year. I think being loose and having a positive vibe, even if you lose a few games in a row, is really important to keep the momentum going the right way.”

That’s right, Epstein, who likes to mix in baseball poetry with his linear weights, is talking about momentum. I wonder if the Cubs have a proprietary wMOM+ metric.

Epstein brought up momentum when asked about the possibility that having such a young team might help down the stretch as the pressure of a playoff chase turns up.

The Cubs have been a loose team all year, and it has worked out pretty well, thanks to the talent on hand. From the postgame dance parties to the easygoing vibes emanating from manager Joe Maddon, the leadership and the veterans on the Cubs have set the right tone for the young guys to follow.

“We’re not guilty of overthinking too many things, which is good,” Epstein said. “The guys are really loose, and it’s not just words. I think if you’re around the team, you feel it. There’s not a lot of weight to the clubhouse on a day-to-day basis. Just show up, have fun, go play hard and really compete and try to win a ballgame. If you win, celebrate extremely hard for about 15 minutes, and let it go ... and do it again the next day.

“That’s really valuable, and it helps you avoid the pitfall of getting too tight. This time of year, if you start paying attention to the standings or things aren’t going your way or you’re not performing up to expectations or you don’t like what people are writing about you or you’re scoreboard-watching and you’re not getting the results you want to get, players and teams and organizations can get too tight. And it’s really hard to escape that.”

Epstein should know. It was the Red Sox’s 2011 September collapse that led to his leaving for the Cubs. Thanks again, guys. Fried chicken and beer on Tom Ricketts. (Note to Wally Hayward's W Partners: Land a legacy chicken partner. I suggest Harold's or Leghorn.)

After losing five of six, including one to Cincinnati, to end August, the Cubs’ September got off to a rousing start with Tuesday’s 5-4 win.

Kris Bryant went 3-for-4 with two run-scoring singles. Miguel Montero tied the game with an RBI single in the sixth. Most importantly, Schwarber (2-for-3, three runs) won the game with a two-run tee-shot homer off Burke Badenhop in the seventh.

Schwarber ended August in a bit of a swoon. From Aug. 20 to 31, he went 5-for-41 with 16 strikeouts and four walks, which dropped his batting average from .311 to .263 and his OPS from 1.001 to .888.

Maddon said he knew Schwarber was in for a good night when Schwarber walked during his second at-bat. He would later score on Bryant’s single.

“The moment he walked, I said, ‘When you’re walking, you’re hitting,’” Maddon said. “He needs to accept the walk out there and calm his feet down. He’s been really jumpy at the plate.”

Schwarber singled and scored in his second at-bat. Fall ball is quickly taking on a new meaning for the talented rookie, who finished his first year of pro baseball in the Florida State League last year.

"Joe, Skip, he's mentioned a couple things to me, just saying, 'Wait 'til September. You'll get an extra pep in your step every day,'" Schwarber said. "It’s not the dog days. It's that time to get after the race and make it to the playoffs. We all feel it. This team’s been really good. We have a lot of good personalities, and it makes it fun to come in the clubhouse."

Fun is good. Before the game on Tuesday, the Cubs clubhouse felt more like one of the bars that surround Wrigley Field. Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane's Last Dance” was blaring from the speakers as the newcomers in the clubhouse mingled with a growing media pack.

It felt a little like 2008 -- except no one was surrounding Mark DeRosa’s locker asking what it will be like when the Cubs win the World Series.

Javier Baez was back for the first time this year, grateful to return after an unexpected sojourn in the minors. Austin Jackson, Quintin Berry and Trevor Cahill had joined the club for the playoff push.

The Cubs have been building toward this moment, from their post-win dance parties to their dramatic, come-from-behind victories. Now they just have to seize the opportunity. With a sizable lead on San Francisco for the second wild card, the Cubs can only lose their way out of the postseason.

That has happened before.

Starting pitching will keep it interesting this month. Epstein can talk about momentum, but one of the hoariest baseball clichés is, “Momentum is only as good as the next day’s pitcher.” After Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, can the other starters hold their own in September?

The Cubs trailed 3-1 going into the bottom of the sixth on Tuesday. Before the game, they were 7-34 when trailing after five innings. Cubs starter Dan Haren was good enough, with just two runs given up in five innings. Clayton Richard and Fernando Rodney each gave up a run.

Epstein defended the bottom three of the rotation before the game. He noted that pitching carried the team during some hitting slumps and referred to the present as a “snapshot moment of time.”

A shorter version of his message: “By no means are we panicking about it or concerned about it," he said. "It’s just part of the evolution of the staff and the rhythm of the season.”

I can dig that. This is September in Chicago. We’re all about momentum, evolution and rhythm.

And in a pinch, a Schwarber home run works, too.