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Push for the Playoffs

Sunday, September 13, 2015 Michael Shayler

Since the 2000 Major League Baseball season, a total of 10 teams have competed for the World Series after making the playoffs through winning their respective leagues Wild-Card spot.

This current Chicago Cubs team is following a course similar to that of previous teams who got hot at the right point of the season, go on to win the Wild-Card and end up riding the hot streaks into playing in the World Series.

A record of 31-17 since the all-star break which includes a span where Cubs went 20-4 has catapulted this team into a comfortable lead for the second Wild-Card spot which a chance of surpassing the Pittsburgh Pirates for home-field advantage for play in game. An overall record of 88-58 has the Cubs sitting pretty in playoff race.

The team has been firing on all cylinders.

The young offense has been consistent (some bad consistencies as well) led by National League Most Valuable Player candidate, first basemen Anthony Rizzo. The leader of this team has given his all in every aspect of the game. Rizzo has been filling the stat sheet in every possible way, .289 Batting Average, 29 Home Runs, 88 Runs Batted In, .392 on base percentage and has been hit by a league leading 25 pitches. Add to the fact he plays gold glove caliber defense at 1st and you have all the makings of an MVP. Kris Bryant has lived up to hype with his 23 home runs and cubs rookie record 87 RBIs. Contributions have come from various spots in line up and help keep team in many games.

 MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo and rookie Kris Bryant have been driving force behind offense.
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 Jake Arrieta has been the pitching equivalent of Rizzo. Arrieta is an NL CY Yound award favorite. Since August 4th, Jake has compiled 15 consecutive quality starts. His 19 wins leads all of baseball and his incredible ERA of 1.99 is 2nd best in baseball. Jon Lester has pitched exactly how he was expected to and has been a perfect fit for this team. With Jason Hammel the cubs have three capable starting pitchers for the playoffs.

Jake Arrieta may be asked to do more as playoffs get closer. NL CY Young candidate has MLB-leading 19 wins
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It has all been working for Cubs as team has yet to show regression in the way they have been playing during 2nd half of season. Labor day saw the team look to continue their trend upward as they entered an important series vs the owner of the MLB's best record (88-52) and arch rival St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs entered the series 9.5 games back of St. Louis for the National League Central lead. Catching the Cardinals would be a tough task but showing up in this series would be a huge boost to the confidence of this young roster.

The first two games of the series saw the Cubs score early and often on their way to 9-0 and 8-5 victories.

This is it, the Cubs are on their way to sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis for the first time since 2008. That happens to be the last time the Cubs made the playoffs.The final game of the series was ours for the taking. Jon Lester pitched seven dominant innings, giving up one run in the the first only to retire 20 out of the next 21 hitters. Lester was pulled after seven innings and 104 pitches. The Cubs held a 3-1 lead. What transpired in the 8th inning is one of the few major concerns for Cubs as the push for the playoffs comes closer to the end.

 The roller coaster that is the bullpen took off.

With a series sweep in the palm of their hands, the Cubs watched the bullpen (Pedro Strop, Clayton Richard, Fernando Rodney) give up three runs in the 8th on way to losing the pivotal game 4-3. Now, this game shouldn't prove to be any type of downfall for the Cubs. This team will finish the season strong and will likely hold on to an opportunity at playing for the NL Wild-Card. The alarming part of losing that game to St. Louis was the way in which it occurred.

The loss revealed the three major concerns heading into final stretch of the season.

Bullpen blew late lead after Lester's great performance -  This bullpen must be able to shut down good teams late in the games. This time of season calls for mistake free baseball. The bullpen has difficulty making any scenario an easy one. The bullpen's stats may not call for panic as the teams 3.56 bullpen ERA is middle of the pact in the Majors. The 18 blown saves (six vs STL alone) is cause for concern as are the amount of base runner's allowed by the bullpen.
Joe Maddon will never show a lack of confidence in his players. The bullpen needs to back up his confidence in them.
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Hitting with Runners in scoring position (RISP)- Another major cause for concern and could even be mentioned as the biggest key to success the rest of the season but pitching will always be a more important factor in my book. The lose in Wednesday's game to St. Louis saw the team go 2 for 11 with RISP.  Even through all the winning the team has managed a .238 batting average with RISP. That's good enough for 3rd worst in all of baseball. The team must be able to capitalize on every opportunity possible. There are no second chances come playoff time.

The next stat can be tied into hitting with runners in scoring position.

 The Cubs leave an average of 7.08 on base per game and left nine men on base during Wednesday's loss.- The Cubs rank 22nd out of 30 teams in that category. The fewest runners left on base per game belongs to the Minnesota Twins at 5.03. Those numbers may not seem too far off from each other but  Minnesota as a team hits .278 with RISP which is 3rd best in baseball. This factor ties into capitalizing when the time calls for it. With the bullpens struggles at times, its very important to score every run possible in any given situation.

Using baseball's most successful franchise over the past 5 years as an example, the San Fransisco Giants have won three World Series titles since 2010.

Their Formula?

Strong bullpen (Madison Bumgardner also helps) and timely hitting.

A bullpen full of reliable arms to get key outs. The Giants could call upon any bullpen pitcher and have complete confidence in that players ability to finish the job they were called upon. Those Giants teams lacked the star potential in the lineup outside Buster Posey but could count on their hitters to produced big hits when needed.

Those Giants teams on offense had no where near the potential that this Cubs team possesses. The bullpens of each team heavily favors the Giants. Now, take into account last years World Series runner up's, the Kansas City Royals. A team similar to the Cubs. Kansas City was driven by a young roster but also had the league's best bullpen. Kansas City ended up competing for the franchise's first World Series in 30 years and took it to the wire in a classic 7-game series that came down to 2 outs in the bottom of 9th.

The common point to these comparisons is the bullpen. Holding onto and closing out games is a vital factor in a teams success. 

The final game of the series was a huge opportunity for this Cubs team to sweep the best team in baseball. If the team was able to complete the victory, it could have sent their confidence as a group to the moon.

It's always been about "If's" for the Cubs.

To all the Cubs faithfuls I ask one thing of you. Enjoy this time. Don't harp on whether this is the team that ends the city of Chicago's 100+ years of misery or not. Get behind this team, cheer until the season officially ends, realize this is only the beginning for our loved franchise.

The hype is real. This team is on the way to achieving something special in the near future.
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That's the best part of this season's success. We have years of competing ahead of us.

Nothing but the highest of faith should be put into manager Joe Maddon's and his fellow coaches ability to get through to this team. If the Cubs can execute in these crucial situations, the sky is the limit for this team, this season.

This team is for real and has the pieces in place to finally be able to ask one question comfortably......Is Next year finally here?

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