By Nate Johnson
Kicking off an 11-game road trip, including four games against the National League Wild Card-leading Pittsburgh Pirates, in St. Louis would require the Chicago Cubs to get off to a hot start. Putting up nine runs against the best team in baseball and getting seven shutout innings from the all-too-often shaky Dan Haren would certainly qualify as just that hot start.
The nine runs, keyed by a three-run home run from Addison Russell and a home run and a two-run double from Dexter Fowler, made for the highest margin of victory in a shutout win against the Cardinals in 34 years. After an anemic west coast trip that saw the team held under three runs per game, the Labor Day matinee was a pleasant carryover from a three-game sweep of Arizona that saw the team mark 22 times in the set, primarily thanks to a 16-run pasting of the Diamondbacks on Friday.
Game two of the Arizona series saw Jake Arrieta take the mound for the first time since his no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the right-hander did not disappoint in his follow-up. Arrieta threw eight innings of shutout baseball, allowing four hits and striking out seven on the way to his 18th win of the season in the team’s 2-0 victory. After taking home the National League Player of the Week honors earlier in the week, the righty was named National League Pitcher of the Month for August after putting up six wins with no losses over the month and holding opponents to a tidy 0.43 ERA.
Chicago’s sweep over Arizona was the eighth of the season, lending to the fourth-best record in the majors and second-best in all of baseball since the end of July, trailing only the Toronto Blue Jays. The team’s 78 wins already puts them five games ahead of last year’s 73-win pace and leaves them on pace for 94 victories. After Monday’s win over the Cards, the Cubs sit 8.5 games up for the second wild card spot and hold an eye-popping 97.7 percent probability of making the postseason.
While any team with postseason aspirations such as the Cubs would love to go into October with more big league experience under their belts, a lot of the success Chicago is experiencing continues to be due to the team’s young base. Rookies have combined for 56 home runs this year, led by Rookie of the Year front-runner Kris Bryant’s 23, and they have driven in the game-winning run on 29 occasions. After spending the first half of the season battling with Los Angeles’s Joc Pederson for top rookie honors, Bryant has taken the driver’s seat for the award as he leads all rookies in slugging, on-base percentage, and runs scored and trails Pederson in home runs by only one.
Including the current road trip, the Cubs are away from home for 16 of their final 26 games. With 12 of those 26 against the only National League teams ahead of them in the standings, the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the September stretch will not be a cakewalk, but this north side team appears to be up to the challenge.