Patrick Gorski/USA Today Sports

Cubs Rising To Occasion Again

September 29, 2018 - 10:39 am

By Chris Emma

CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- The hallmark of this Cubs core, one that has defined a historic four-year run in franchise history, was on display Friday at Wrigley Field. 

More often than not, the Cubs seem to rise to the occasion when the games matter most. That was certainly the case in a 8-4 victory over the Cardinals in a pivotal game with playoff implications on the line between two division rivals.

Kyle Hendricks was excellent in eight strong innings of work, Kris Bryant broke through with a homer that traveled 448 feet and the Cubs dropped their magic number to clinch the National League Central to two. After some sluggish baseball early this week, the Cubs have their groove back and the champagne on ice.

Once again, the Cubs are clicking with confidence and sense there could be a deep run ahead in October.

"We always know what we have," Hendricks said. "No matter how we've been playing, we know what's in that room, and we always have confidence in that."

Experience for the Cubs is more than just service time in the big leagues. There were examples of it Friday that made the difference in a win. 

In the first inning, Bryant had perhaps the worst at-bat since he struck out on three pitches in his first big league plate appearance. He was rung up on three pitches low and away from Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright, chasing badly on strike three. The next time up, he kept the hands back on a low breaking ball and belted the homer.

When Hendricks found himself in jams in the seventh and eighth innings, he stuck to the game plan of pitching to contact, mixing an effective fastball and changeup to get out of them. He walked off the mound after 104 pitches and to a big ovation from the home crowd.

"He was outstanding," manager Joe Maddon said. "We needed that from him."

The ebbs and flows of a Cubs season that has now reached 94 wins and 66 losses seemed to be reaching a brink this week in Chicago. The Brewers have challenged all the way to this finish line, and the Cubs have been battling their own inconsistencies too often for their liking this season, which made the series against the Cardinals this weekend so fascinating.

Maddon has filled the Cubs' facilities with art, so he knows well that baseball rarely comes out like an oil painting. The Cubs have patched holes all season long, such as David Bote stepping in for Bryant at third base or Cole Hamels taking the mound every fifth day for Yu Darvish or Tyler Chatwood. Daniel Murphy has been a vital addition to this team, particularly with Addison Russell now on administrative leave.

All along, there was never a sense of panic in the Cubs' clubhouse -- even as president of baseball operations Theo Epstein's proactive moves suggested the front office had concerns -- because they believe in that level of experience.

"We're in the postseason four years in a row, so, yeah," outfielder Jason Heyward said.

Privately, there will be a checklist to address before the Cubs take the field for their first playoff game. The health of Bryant and apparent fatigue of catcher Willson Contreras are among the primary concerns, while balancing a bullpen without a primary closer will be a challenge. But the team that takes the field, regardless of the roster makeup, will be confident.

First, the Cubs want to secure the crown they have strived to reach and clinch a third consecutive division title. After their win Friday afternoon, they led the NL Central by 1 1/2 games, with the Brewers' result against the Tigers in the evening pending. The Cubs have already clinched at least a berth in the NL wild-card game Tuesday.

Maddon, Bryant and others in that clubhouse won't be watching as the Brewers battle the Tigers in Milwaukee. The Cubs have been in these big games before, and they just want to focus on themselves. This team is a proven winner when the games matter most.

"This is what you live for," Hendricks said. "These are the games you want to play in, games that have meaning like this. That's why you play the game. So, hopefully we have a lot of these left."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.