CHICAGO -- Even before his team's latest dramatic win -- a ninth-inning, walk-off home run by rookie Kris Bryant on Monday -- Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon believed this could finally be the year for his storied franchise.
Is it possible the Cubs can win the World Series?
"Of course, of course it is," he told the Waddle & Silvy show on ESPN Radio on Monday morning. "We're playing in maybe the best division in baseball. We play the Cardinals a lot. We play the Pirates a lot. We see what that looks like."
What "that" looks like is winning baseball -- championship baseball, in fact. The Cardinals are the epitome of sustained success, while the Pirates have paid their dues while making the postseason the past two years. Combined, the three teams make up three of the four best records in the game this year. Maddon's Cubs are right there; they reached 21 games over .500 for the first time this season on Monday.
"You have to get to 5, 10, 15 and 20 games over and keep moving it from there," Maddon said. "We just continue to play better baseball. Our young guys are really getting their feet on the ground. I don't think anyone is highly fatigued. I think our pitching is in pretty good order right now. Plus, we're playing better defense."
In other words, the Cubs don't have an obvious weakness -- at least not since rookie catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber joined the team full-time after the All-Star break. Coincidence or not, the offense has taken off in the second half. The Cubs lead the National League in runs scored and are getting on base 33 percent of the time, good for third in the NL.
Although good hitting weather has finally invaded Wrigley Field, it won't last long, as the ballpark conditions traditionally change in the final weeks of the season. But the Cubs' offense has become somewhat weatherproof; it leads the NL in walks. In fact, since the All-Star break, the Cubs have led in walks and home runs -- a good combination, no matter how you break it down.
Maddon isn't concerned about the offense. His focus is on the more traditional aspects of winning in September and October.
"You have to pitch really well to beat good pitching, and you have to catch the ball on defense," Maddon said. "As we continue to move this thing forward, I'm really going to keep an eye on those two areas. If we pitch it well and catch it well ... we could get to the playoffs and advance."
Maddon believes the Cubs have "caught the ball" better lately, and their offense has produced better as well. With four rookies earning considerable playing time, it's not a surprise there were some growing pains. Third baseman Bryant, new shortstop Addison Russell and (now injured) right fielder Jorge Soler, in particular, all had their shaky moments in the field when they first came up, but all have improved -- especially Bryant and Russell, who man the left side of the infield.
"They're really accountable human beings," Maddon said of his rookies. "They're accountable to themselves and the entire group. They're not only talented, but they're willing to say, 'I messed up' and move it on from there."
"You have to pitch really well to beat good pitching, and you have to catch the ball on defense. As we continue to move this thing forward, I'm really going to keep an eye on those two areas. If we pitch it well and catch it well ... we could get to the playoffs and advance." Cubs manager Joe Maddon
Bryant is once again the favorite for rookie of the year after he hit his 20th home run to beat the Cleveland Indians 2-1 on Monday. It was the Cubs' fifth consecutive victory and league-leading 12th walk-off win, and it earned them a 6½-game lead on the second wild card.
"I preach heavily about present tense," Maddon said. "We're not worried about the first game against San Francisco or the Dodgers or all that kind of crap. We're worried about winning Monday's game, then you move to Tuesday. If we can retain that mindset, things will turn out well."
The schedule gets a little harder for the Cubs and a little lighter for the Giants, but with the cushion the Cubs have built, even a 2-4 week against the Giants and Dodgers won't be devastating.
As for October baseball, the Cubs have a team built for it. They have a true ace in Jake Arrieta and a proven October star in Jon Lester. They have an offense that has blossomed and shown the ability to take walks and hit home runs. Those are all postseason formulas. The Cubs are young, but they no longer look it at the plate or in the field.
Maddon is bucking 107-year history in thinking his team can win the World Series this year, especially with all that youth around the diamond. But the Cubs have already surpassed reasonable expectations, so maybe the dream isn't all that far-fetched.
"You want your team to look better by August, and I think our team is," Maddon said.
What will it look like in October?