CHICAGO—The Cubs entered Thursday night’s game against the Brewers with two avenues to their first NL Central title since 2008. The first, of course, was to follow the script and beat the Brewers, unleashing the first of what Cubs fans hope are many celebrations this fall. The second was for the Giants to beat the Cardinals in the opening game of a huge four-game series between the NL wild-card contenders in San Francisco.
After the Cubs fell to the Brewers, 5–4, the first avenue closed. After the game, manager Joe Maddon told his players to go home rather than hang around the clubhouse to see if the Giants could provide the final blow. When asked by reporters if they would actually listen to him, Maddon’s tune changed.
“I have no idea, but I am. That’s the plan,” Maddon said.
The Giants did indeed provide that final blow, riding a complete game from Johnny Cueto to beat the Cardinals, 6–2. When the Cubs officially became 2016 NL Central champions, the 41,000 who turned out hoping to be part of the celebration were long gone. Reporters and cleanup crew were likely the only people left in the stadium, though perhaps a few players were still in the lavish clubhouse, despite their manager’s orders.
As expected, the Cubs weren’t taking their loss too hard despite an obvious desire to give the fans an opportunity to celebrate one of the best regular seasons in the franchise’s history.
“Nothing’s a lock in our game,” Maddon said. “It would have been wonderful to do that with the fans right there, but that’s part of the uncontrollable nature of our game.”
It has long been a question of when—not if—the Cubs would win the NL Central. They opened the season as World Series favorites, and when they got off to a 25–6 start, it was essentially impossible to find anyone who believed they wouldn’t be winning their first division title in eight years. But that is merely the first step toward what Chicago plans on being a long postseason run. If all goes according to plan. the Cubs will have three more celebrations before packing it in for the winter.
“Pragmatically, let’s do this, let’s move it along and let’s get ready for the next step,” Maddon said. “We have much larger baseball fish to fry in our skillets.”
When the next set of 41,000 fans show up at Wrigley Field on Friday, the game is likely to have the feel of a late spring training game. The Cubs still have something to play for—their magic number for clinching home-field advantage throughout the NL postseason sits at 11—but MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, as well as other regulars like shortstop Addison Russell, second baseman Ben Zobrist and centerfielder Dexter Fowler could get the day off. Maddon insisted to reporters they would “enjoy tomorrow’s lineup.”
Make no mistake, though: There will be a party after the game—assuming whatever lineup Maddon trots out there can get a win, of course.
“We celebrate after every win,” Jason Heyward said. “When we lose, we don’t celebrate. Tomorrow’s tomorrow, another day.”
But even though the Cubs realize the postseason—the one that houses their true ambitions—is just beginning, a regular season this good is worth venerating.
“To some it might be anti-climactic, but we’ve already got 93 [wins]. That’s not a bad season,” Maddon said. “However we get this accomplished, I’ll take it.”