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How were the Cubs built?
1:13 | MLB
How were the Cubs built?
Thursday September 15th, 2016

In their quest to end a National League pennant drought that dates to 1945 and to win their first World Series since 1908, the Chicago Cubs have established themselves as the best team in baseball. Led by National League MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, their formidable offense ranks first in the league in on-base percentage (.341) and second in scoring (4.98 runs per game). In the rotation, Kyle Hendricks has broken out to join Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester in the game’s strongest starting five. Bolstered by the majors’ most efficient defense and the deadline addition of closer Aroldis Chapman, Chicago's 3.37 runs per game allowed is the majors’ lowest by three-tenths of a run. Guided by manager Joe Maddon, the Cubs have posted a 93–52 record through Sept. 14, putting them on pace to win 104 games—which would be MLB's highest total since 2004—and their +234 run differential is on pace to be the majors’ best since 1998. Entering play on Thursday, their magic number to clinch their first NL Central title since 2008 is down to one.

What follows here is a chronological look at 10 top highlights from what has already been a magical season. As long as the magic continues, we'll update this post for the rest of the year.

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How Cubs star Kris Bryant got even better and became the NL MVP favorite

Coming off a 97-win season (their best since 1945), a trip to the NLCS (their first since 2003) and an active winter in which they added rightfielder Jason Heyward, starter John Lackey and second baseman Ben Zobrist, the Cubs set the tone for 2016 by trouncing the Angels, 9–0, on Opening Day. They reached base in 18 of their 44 plate appearances against the hapless Halos, with Dexter Fowler and Zobrist doing so four times apiece; the former scored three runs. Catcher Miguel Montero and reserve outfielder Matt Sczur drove in three runs apiece—the former with a three-run homer, the latter via a bases-loaded double. Reigning NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta picked up where he left off by holding the Angels scoreless over seven innings on two hits, extending his regular-season scoreless streak to 29 innings dating back to the previous Sept. 22. The victory was the start of a blistering 17–5 April and a season-opening 47–20 stretch.

In the most lopsided no-hitter since 1884, Arrieta and the Cubs obliterated the Reds, 16–0. Continuing a run in which he closed the 2015 regular season by allowing just seven runs (four earned) over his final 12 starts totaling 88 1/3 innings—a streak that included a no-hitter against the Dodgers on Aug. 30—Arrieta struck out six and worked around four walks, erasing one via a double play and another via pickoff; no Red made it further than second base. The no-hitter was the 10th in the franchise's modern history (dating back to 1901), and Arrieta was the second pitcher in that span to throw multiple no-hitters, after Ken Holtzman in 1969 and '71. Arrieta's nine regular-season starts between no-hitters was the third-shortest stretch from one no-no to another, behind only Johnny Vander Meer (back-to-back in 1938) and Warren Spahn (five starts between no-hitters in '60–61). Arrieta's run of 24 consecutive quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs), meanwhile, tied him for the third-longest stretch since 1913 and the longest since Bob Gibson in '67–68.

In the first meeting of the season between these two National League powerhouses, the Cubs (who came into the series 20–6) steamrolled the Nationals (19–8) via four straight wins at Wrigley Field from May 5 to 8. Chicago befuddled reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper by walking him 13 times in the series, including a record-tying six in a 13-inning win on May 8; Harper officially went 1-for-4 over four games. Baez—a versatile 23-year-old who has made at least one start at every infield position and at least 17 at second base, shortstop and third—carried the team to victory in the four-hour, 54-minute finale with a solo drive off reliever Blake Treinen.

After clouting 26 homers en route to NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2015, the 24-year-old Bryant emerged as one of the league's elite sluggers via a barrage of 20 homers in 49 games from May 13 to July 5; he's hit a league-leading 37 to date. Not only did he hit three in the Cubs' 11–8 win over the Reds on June 27, but he also added two doubles, becoming the first Cub and just the ninth player since 1913 to collect five extra-base hits in a game; none had ever produced that exact combination of hits. Bryant also became the first Cub and just the 19th player ever to collect at least 16 total bases in a game within that span.

A rotation stalwart during the Cubs' lean rebuilding years, the 29-year-old Wood has found a home in the bullpen, making a team-high 70 relief appearances with a 3.18 ERA while also pinch-hitting, pinch-running and even playing leftfield in three games. In the 13th inning of Chicago's 15-inning June 28 game in Cincinnati—the team's longest of the season in terms of innings—manager Joe Maddon showed off his ingenuity by inserting Wood into the game via a double switch as a leftfielder in place of Chris Coghlan as Joel Peralta took the mound. In the 14th, Spencer Patton and Wood shuttled back and forth between left and the mound, with Wood making the second out by retiring lefty Jay Bruce. After the Cubs erupted for five runs in the top of the 15th, Maddon put Pedro Strop in leftfield as Wood shut the door on the Reds for a 7–2 victory.

In the 12th inning of a four-hour, 18-minute Sunday night epic that saw the Cubs trail 6–0 after three frames and rally to tie it with three runs in the ninth, Jason Heyward hit a leadoff double and advanced to third on a fly ball. Joe Maddon went to his bench to pinch-hit for reliever Hector Rondon, calling upon ... Jon Lester? It was a nearly unthinkable move given Lester's ineptitude with the bat; he began his career with an 0-for-66 skid before collecting his first hit and was just 7-for-138 for an .051/.102/.065 line. But Maddon didn't ask Lester to swing away; he asked him to bunt. After fouling one off against Chris Martin to run the count to 2–2, Lester perfectly placed one on the first base side of the mound. Martin's glove-toss to catcher Mike Zunino was too late to nab the sliding Heyward at home as the Cubs won, 7–6—the first of three walkoffs in an 11-game winning streak.

After going 47–20 from Opening Day to June 19 to put themselves within range of an historically significant win total, the Cubs fell off their breakneck pace by losing 15 of their final 21 first-half games. They reasserted their dominance via a 29–10 stretch following the All-Star break, highlighted by an 11-game winning streak from July 31 to Aug. 12—their longest since 2001—capped by a 13-2 win over their division rivals. Chicago chased St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright by scoring seven runs in the first two innings via seven hits—five for extra bases—including rookie catcher Willson Contreras's three-run homer. Kris Bryant and Matt Szczur collected three hits apiece and combined for three doubles against Wainwright, piling up six runs scored and five RBIs overall. The winning streak expanded the Cubs' NL Central lead from 6 1/2 games to 14.

Signed to an eight-year, $184 million contract last December, Heyward has endured a season-long funk, batting just .226/.299/.312 with six home runs. Strong defense has helped mitigate his slump at least somewhat, and he's had his highlights with the bat as well. One of his most memorable contributions came against the Giants at Wrigley Field on Sept. 4. His fourth-inning single off Johnny Cueto scored Anthony Rizzo to tie the game at 1–1. His ninth-inning single off closer Santiago Casilla scored Addison Russell to re-tie the game at 2–2. In the 13th, another single off Matt Reynolds—his third hit of the game—brought home Rizzo with the winning run. It was the Cubs' fifth walk-off victory of the season and Heyward's first walk-off hit since his rookie year.

Bidding to throw just the season's second no-hitter after teammate Jake Arrieta's gem on April 21, Hendricks held the Cardinals hitless for eight innings on an economical 93 pitches before serving up a leadoff homer to Jeremy Hazelbaker to start the ninth. Despite his failure to finish the job, his effort was hardly for naught, as it trimmed the Cubs' magic number to clinch the NL Central to three games. It also lowered Hendricks's MLB-leading ERA to 2.03, part of a breakout season that has put the 26-year-old righty into the NL Cy Young conversation. Not too shabby for a pitcher who began the year as the Cubs' fifth starter.

With homers off Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, Rizzo—accompanied by a David Ross homer off Martinez as well, setting off the Cardinal aces’ nine strikeouts—powered the Cubs to a 7–0 win that reduced their magic number to wrap up the NL Central to one with 17 games left to play. The homers were Rizzo’s 30th and 31st of the season, matching last year’s total. When the Cubs clinch, it will be their fourth division title of the wild-card era and their sixth since division play began in 1969. Of course, they're gunning for their first pennant since 1945 and their first championship since 1908.

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