The Rundown: Cubs Clinch, Lackey’s Future and NLDS Rotation Possibilities, Buy Stuff

Success and happiness are guaranteed to no one, which is why Wednesday night’s celebration at Busch Stadium was so sweet. This wasn’t the upstart group from 2015 that turned their season around following a no-hit loss to the hapless Phillies. And it sure as hell wasn’t the juggernaut that was destined for a title after a 25-6 start to the 2016 season.

No, this year’s team spend much of the season in a weird limbo between the cozy definitions of “good” and “mediocre,” frustrating fans with inconsistent play that some classified as lack of effort. As much as I detest the latter assertion, it’s easy to see why people would be upset after what we’ve all grown used to on the North Side. However, we’ve also grown used to a team that knows when to turn it on and pull away.

That’s exactly what the Cubs have done here in 2017, racing to their second straight division title and third straight playoff berth — something no one born since the autumn of 1906 can claim to have been alive for — after opening the second half below .500. Think about those things for just a moment. Winning the World Series had been such an all-consuming pursuit that most didn’t take time to think about how infrequently the Cubs even had a shot at it.

I mean, yes, all of baseball fandom was acutely aware of the shortcomings, but it was more focused on the failure to win it all. Prior to Thed Epstoyer’s arrival in Chicago, the team had been to the postseason six times in the previous 67 years. Now we’re looking at three times in the last three years. And if this is the point where you hold up the Atlanta Braves dynasty of the 90’s and early 2000’s as some sort of cautionary tale, please don’t take it personally when I tell you to go pound sand.

These guys were 5.5 games behind the Brewers at the All-Star break, then ended the month of July 2.5 games up. I don’t know about you, but I think making up eight games in the standings in a little over two weeks is pretty damn good. With the division locked up and no shot at passing the Nats in terms of home-field advantage, the next four games will be mercifully meaningless. Well, to an extent.

The Cardinals still have the slimmest of hope for the second Wild Card, but one more loss or one win by the Rockies knocks them out of the postseason entirely. And Milwaukee’s elimination number is only two, so they’re quickly sliding out of contention. So there’s a vested interest in seeing those two teams miss out.

Lackey’s last start?

“I’m always one more out closer to the beer,” a suds-soaked John Lackey said from the visitors clubhouse amidst the ruckus of the Cubs’ third consecutive playoff-clinch party. “They just mean a little more tonight.”

Lackey had just finished up a beautiful start in which he had given up a single run on two hits and two walks over six innings. Unlike some of the smoke-and-mirrors stuff he’d gotten away with earlier in the season, this was a legitimate lockdown effort. That performance kept the Cubs in the thick of a game in which they had notched only two hits, both Jon Jay singles, through the first six innings against Michael Wacha.

I’d like to think that my continued dismissal of Jay has turned him into a multi-hit machine, but I suppose we probably all know better. Then again, he had a five-game multi-hit streak going during the time I denounced his presence in the lineup. When I decided to back off, he got only one hit and then failed to come through as a pinch hitter. So I upped the ante and left him off the playoff roster, which led to two more hits in the clincher.

That’s more than coincidence folks. Okay, fine, it’s not. But I don’t think it hurts anyone for me to maintain the ruse while it’s “working,” kind of like an unsuperstitious Joe Maddon wearing his Joe Namath jersey every day now.

Then the Cubs got back to being the Cubs and Michael Wacha got back to being Michael Wacha and the rest is history. So mirthful was the postgame celebration that a little bit of levity — no doubt aided by the lubrication of gallons of rice-based American macrobrew — managed to sneak through the microscopic cracks in Lack’s bony exterior.

“There’s a lot of young guys that are really good at baseball,” came Lackey’s explanation for his team’s success. As for the older guys? “They’re not too bad either.”

Players were toasting not only Lackey’s game, but his career, which may have come to a close. He’s talked about just walking off into the sunset, though he’s never really said for sure that he was done. Before we get to next season, there’s October baseball to worry about.

Asked a month ago, I’d have said I didn’t want Lackey anywhere near a postseason roster, or that his presence on it would signal far worse things afoot in the rotation. After seeing how Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta have struggled with fatigue and/or injury of late, however, I have begun singing a different tune. I’m not necessarily talking about putting Lackey in the rotation, but having him available out of the pen might not be a bad option. Though he didn’t look it last year, the dude knows his way around high-pressure situations.

If I’m setting up the rotation, I’m starting Kyle Hendricks in Game 1 at Washington. Though he’s typically been better at home (most pitchers are), his road 3.41 road FIP is the best of the and better than his 4.48 FIP at Wrigley this season. Then I’m lining up Jose Quintana for Game 2. I can almost guarantee you that’s not how it’ll set up, but Q has been great on the road and this also gives Lester and Arrieta that much more time to rest.

The latter is still scheduled to make Sunday’s start against the Reds, which seems a little dubious given his claims of not being fully healthy. If the Cubs and Arrieta do feel he’s healthy enough to go in the season finale, I’m bumping him back to Game 4 in order to give him the most rest possible. That leaves Lester for the first home start of the series.

We’ll see how it all falls into place in the next week or so.

More news and notes

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