10 thoughts about the Cubs on the most important day of the season

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The Cubs have lost 4 of their last 6 games and woke up Wednesday morning only a half-game up on the Brewers in the division.

But you know that already.

Cubs fans are upset and freaking out, as is natural and understandable. It's their right to be pissed off right now. 

That said, it's also worth keeping in mind that the Cubs' magic number to clinching a postseason berth sits at 1.

This would be the fourth straight season the Cubs play October baseball and that is something every single fan would've been happy with back in 2014.

All you have to do is get into the tournament and you have a legitimate shot to win it all. The Cubs are on the verge of ensuring they will have a spot in the postseason bracket, regardless of how tough this final week has been:

It may not seem like it, but the Cubs are actually still in the driver's seat. 

No matter what the Brewers do, the Cubs clinch the division by at least a full game if they somehow win out.

Here is a realistic possibility of how the final five days plays out:

The Cubs win Wednesday and Thursday night to salvage a series split with the Pirates. The Brewers fail to sweep the Cardinals and lose Wednesday night. The Cubs thus would have a 2-game lead on Milwaukee entering the final weekend of action where the Cubs host the Cardinals and the Brewers host the Tigers. Then the Cubs would need to win just one of the three games against St. Louis to ensure they go to sleep Sunday night with at least a share of the division title. 

It may be hard to see that right now, but the Cubs going 3-2 and the Brewers going 3-1 over the final five days is not a stretch of the imagination in any way.

Of course, that would pit the two teams against each other in a Game 163 at Wrigley Field Monday, where the winner claims the division and top seed in the NL and the other is forced to host the one-game wild-card playoff game the following night.

That's obviously less-than-ideal for the Cubs, but we'll cross that bridge if we come to it.

Here are 9 other thoughts bouncing through my head after Tuesday's game:

1. This offense...YIKES.

Everybody has discussed the Cubs' offensive struggles of late. But the reality is, it's worse than I even imagined while covering this team the entire month.

The Cubs were built to have an American League style lineup that wore pitchers out and got on base at a ridiculous clip.

Instead, they have posted a .293 on-base percentage in September. As a TEAM.

Here's how they rank against the rest of Major League Baseball this month:

28th - OPS (.649)
23rd - BB%
5th - K% 
28th - HR (18)
27th - wOBA (.282)
27th - wRC+ (75)

Here are the OPS numbers for Cubs individual players in the month of September:

Schwarber - 1.040
Baez - .857
Rizzo - .786
Bryant - .754
Murphy - .741
Zobrist - .708
Happ - .703
Caratini - .592
Bote - .557
La Stella - .517
Heyward - .516
Almora - .427
Contreras - .420
Russell - .377

Put another way, Cole Hamels has 1 hit (a homer) and a walk in 10 September plate appearances and yet he's been the Cubs' ninth most valuable hitter this month, ahead of Carataini, Bote, La Stella, Heyward, Almora, Contreras and Russell.

Let's try this one on for size: Hamels has as many homers this month as Bryant, Zobrist, Bote, La Stella, Heyward, Almora, Contreras and Russell COMBINED.

2. The Daniel Murphy effect.

There are two schools of thought here.

For starters: Could you imagine where this Cubs offense would be if they didn't trade for Murphy in a waiver deal last month? I know Halloween is coming up, but that might be an alternate universe too scary for even the most brave of Cubs fans.

The other part here: Where is the effect Murphy was supposed to bring to this lineup?

When he first joined the Cubs, everybody was raving about his positive impact on the lineup and how he's talked hitting with young players like Bote and Happ in the dugout and clubhouse. 

He definitely had a very positive impact on the Cubs offense initially, but like pretty much everything else with the Cubs offense, that's fizzled out recently.

In 29 games with the Cubs, Murphy is hitting .278 with a .314 on-base percentage and the only reason his OPS is solid (.784) is because he has a .470 slugging percentage thanks to 6 homers.

But this is also a guy that was supposed to bring a contact-oriented approach to a team that struggled with strikeouts. Yet Murphy has whiffed 21 times in 115 at-bats in a Cubs uniform, far above the rate he had in Washington to begin the year (17 strikeouts in 190 at-bats). 

So while the  Cubs offense can be contagious in a good way, it also appears it can be contagious in a bad way and even Murphy has fallen victim to the woes of this lineup recently.

"[Monday], we hit a couple balls on the button I thought early," Murphy said after Tuesday's 6-0 loss. "Maybe if they get down, it changes the game. I think as an offense, starting with me specifically, I just gotta have better at-bats."

3. Overanalyzing the lineup.

Look, Joe Maddon can't win for losin' right now. No matter how he lines up these Cubs hitters, it would not have made a difference over the last week.

But as is the nature of media members and baseball fans, we constantly make too much out of the lineup. 

In this case, I'm curious if Murphy should be moved down in the order and out of the leadoff spot.

Since the start of the 2016 season, Murphy leads all big-league hitters in batting average with runners in scoring position (.362). He's not exactly tearing the cover off the ball right now, but he also isn't getting many opportunities to drive in runs while leading off, especially now that the pitcher's spot is hitting ninth once again.

Maddon likes Murphy atop the order because of his potential to set the right tone for the rest of the lineup, but even when he hit a solo homer to lead off Friday's Crosstown game, it didn't have a positive effect for the rest of the game.

4. Where is this team's confidence?

Speaking of that Murphy homer, it looked as if it would be a weekend where the Cubs would roll over the rebuilding White Sox and it sure looked like the Cubs would have no problem shaking off a tough loss in Arizona in their previous game.

Yet the next inning, Jose Quintana served up a three-run homer and that was that for the Cubs. They had seven offensive innings remaining and yet couldn't overcome a 2-run deficit.

We've seen that quite a bit lately from this team. They got down 2-0 in the first inning Monday and then 3-0 in the second inning Tuesday and looked listless after those big Pirates home runs.

After both games against Pittsburgh, Maddon and the players have talked about how getting down early put them in a tough spot.

They've also been talking a lot about this team's resiliency, but where has that been over the last week? Where is the team that has been near the top of the majors in come-from-behind victories all season?

One home run early and they're defeated? It's understandable given it puts even more pressure on an offense that clearly is not firing on all cylinders right now.

Maddon talked about the importance of his team getting an early lead to take the pressure off the lineup, but even when they got that early lead Friday at Guaranteed Rate Field, it didn't end up in the result they desired.

When Murphy first joined the Cubs, he discussed how he viewed this team after playing against them in October over the last few seasons. He said he felt like the Cubs could take a punch better than anybody else in the league.

We're about to see just how well they can take a hit.

"I think that what this club has done a really good job of is kinda washing off a poor performance, which is unfortunately what we've had the last two nights," Murphy said. "We'll go home, we'll sleep up, see our families and see if we can come in here tomorrow and play a little bit better."

5. When it rains, it pours.

The Cubs have had more than their fair share of injury woes in 2018 and while guys like Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop would certainly come in handy right now, it's Bryant's injuries that are being felt the most right now.

Bryant has not been the same since suffering a shoulder injury in late May and now has to contend with a left wrist contusion after being plunked by a Chris Archer pitch Tuesday night.

X-rays were negative, but Maddon already suggested Bryant would be out of the lineup Wednesday night and wasn't sure when the 2016 NL MVP would be able to return.

With only 5 games left in the season, the Cubs could sure use Bryant in the lineup. Even if he's not "Vintage KB," he still gets on base at a good clip, runs the bases extremely well and plays solid defense all around the diamond.

6. Rest matters.

The MLB schedule-makers have really given the Cubs all they can handle over the final 5-6 weeks of the season, with only one off-day from Aug. 21 through Sept. 30. 

That's obviously a factor, but it's not like the league will just hand the Cubs the division crown because they've had some terrible luck on the weather and schedule front.

After another hour-long rain delay Tuesday night, Maddon gave the team an extra hour of rest Wednesday, having them show up at 4:30 for a 7 p.m. game instead of the usual 3:30 arrival time. 

Maddon preaches "less is more" constantly and runs an American Legion Week where players are forbidden from showing up to the ballpark early in an effort to squeeze as much rest as possible out of the day.

Maybe a brief period of rest Wednesday could be what they need to reset mentally at the most crucial point in the season?

7. Where will the next seminal moment come from?

Riding a two-game losing streak, the Cubs were tied with the White Sox heading into the fifth inning Saturday and the offense was still struggling to break through.

That's when Murphy hit a hard line drive to left field and White Sox outfielder Ryan LaMarre came charging in...only to watch the ball sail over his head.

It was a double for Murphy, plated the go-ahead run and led to another pair of runs to put the Cubs up 5-2 in a game they eventually won 8-3.

It was the break the Cubs offense needed — for two days, at least.

"That was a seminal moment," Maddon said. "When it was hit, LaMarre, he's coming in on the ball and I'm like, 'Aw, I thought it was hit better than that.' Just off the bat, it felt or sounded better, I thought, and of course it, was. 

"I thought it was a turning point. It gave us that offensive break we've been seeking. I mean, we've hit some balls good for outs, too, but that one went our way and it was a big moment."

Obviously that offensive break has not carried over into this Pirates series at Wrigley Field, but it begs the question — where will the next offensive break come from, if it even comes at all?

The Cubs could certainly use a little bit of good luck right now.

8. Yelich > Javy

The NL MVP race is coming down to the wire just as the NL playoff race is. 

While Baez hasn't exactly gone cold, Brewers star Christian Yelich appears to be putting some distance between him and "El Mago" lately.

Yelich drove in 6 runs Tuesday night and has been insanely hot for more than two months running. Since July 13, Yelich is slashing .364/.429/.736 (1.165 OPS) with 22 HR and 62 RBI in 63 games. 

Yelich is looking more and more like the 2018 NL MVP, especially if his Brewers rip the division and the league's best record away from the Cubs.

9. It's all about the lens.

Perspective matters. We've heard from Hamels and Heyward lately about their line of thinking over this final week.

Murphy provided his own perspective after Tuesday night's game:

"We're coming down to the end," he said. "What is it — 5 games left? Half-game lead. I think a lot of ball clubs would sign up for this. I know I would've 6 weeks ago wearing a different uniform. It's all about the lens you look at it through. But these are important ballgames, obviously."

Touche.

Yes, the Cubs have blown what was once a comfortable lead over the Brewers in the division.

But with 5 days left in the season, the Cubs still control their own destiny and that's really not a bad position to be in.

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