Thanks to six innings of two-hit ball from 38-year-old John Lackey and Addison Russell‘s three-run homer in a five-run seventh inning, the Cubs capped a remarkable second-half turnaround Wednesday night when they beat the rival Cardinals 5-1 to win their second straight National League Central title.
The Cubs (89-69) have four games left but will recharge their batteries for a matchup with the Nationals in the NL Division Series starting Oct. 6 in Washington.
This marks the first time the Cubs will advance to the postseason for the third consecutive season since they went to the World Series in 1906-08. This clinching was special for several reasons, starting with their 46-24 record after the All-Star break that saw them overcome a 5-game deficit.
“The guys who have been here for a long time have been kind of stopped on for a few years,” Ben Zobrist said. “St. Louis has kind of owned the division for a few years. I hope we can continue to do this.”
Their clinching of a postseason berth in St. Louis was their first since 1938 when they earned the right to advance to the World Series.
It seemed fitting that Russell sparked the Wednesday comeback from a one-run deficit because he started the Cubs’ second-half surge with a game-winning homer in the ninth inning to beat the Orioles 9-8 in the first game of the second half after the team had blown an 8-0 lead.
The seasons of Lackey and Russell virtually mirrored the Cubs’ mercurial year. Lackey didn’t pitch more than six innings in his first six starts, then pitched seven shutout innings in a victory May 9 at Colorado.
Questions about Lackey’s status in the rotation have persisted, but he kept the offense within striking distance Wednesday night when he didn’t allow a hit after the second and retired the final 10 batters he faced.
“(Lackey) is one of the best people I’ve ever played with,” Jon Lester said. “This is probably his last regular-season start. Here’s to one hell of a (bleeping) career.”
Before the game, Maddon wouldn’t be prodded into placing added weight on Lackey’s performance tied to a spot in the postseason rotation. That Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring still lacks full strength after a stretch on the disabled list looms large in postseason plans.
As for Russell, he coped with a slump and a publicized divorce filing before plantar fasciitis sidelined him for six weeks until his return Sept. 16. Russell hit a pinch-hit home run in his first at-bat after being activated
His seventh-inning homer Wednesday was the third of five consecutive hits off Michael Wacha, who limited the Cubs to two hits through the first six innings.
Javier Baez, Jason Heyward and pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella doubled after his homer to add two more runs.
“We’re not taking anything for granted.” Heyward said. “We’re not taking anything for granted.”
Before the game, the Cubs players were relaxed despite missing a chance to clinch the division title the previous night.
There was some tension that carried over after the Cardinals beat them 8-7 Tuesday.
That was evident with two out in the first when the first pitch from Wacha drilled Anthony Rizzo on the right thigh.
Rizzo chucked the bat before walking slowly to first base. The plunking occurred less than 24 hours after Tommy Pham expressed his displeasure after Cubs reliever Felix Pena drilled him with a pitch and he had to leave the game one inning later with soreness.
“It definitely was on purpose,” Pham told reporters. Pham added that he had to think twice before deciding not to charge the mound.
“I don’t make enough money right now to face a suspension,” he said.
Maddon was aware of Pham’s comments and had a wry response before the game.
“(Kris Bryant) did not take umbrage to being hit (in the second inning Tuesday),” Maddon replied. “It’s a bad method of trying to put dots together. There was no intent, just as there was no intent to hit K.B. It was part of the game. You pitch guys inside, sometimes they get hit. Rizzo gets hit all the time, and I don’t think one time Rizzo has said anything.”