MILWAUKEE – The playoffs have not yet officially begun for the Cubs.
Just don’t tell that to anyone inside their clubhouse.
“It’s the playoffs – already – for this team,” declared Ben Zobrist after Sunday’s 5-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. The victory enabled the Cubs to take three of four over the weekend.
Jose Quintana, who is looking to pitch in his first postseason, helped the Cubs reduce their magic number to clinch the National League Central to 2 by tossing a complete-game three-hitter.
The Cubs improved to 87-68 and moved 5½ games ahead of the Brewers and six ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the Central.
The Brewers (82-74) are off Monday, so the Cubs can’t clinch until Tuesday at the earliest. But they have the delicious possibility of doing so this week in St. Louis, where they begin a four-game series Monday night against the Cardinals (81-74), who lost Sunday to the Pirates.
The Cardinals are the Cubs’ Gateway Arch rivals and longtime tormentors, so clinching on Busch Stadium turf and spraying champagne in the visitors clubhouse this week would leave a mark.
Zobrist, who hails from Eureka, Illinois – which is home to many Cardinals and Cubs supporters – did his best to sound diplomatic about the possibility of the Cubs clinching in St. Louis.
“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” he said. “But we got to win the games. This series [against Milwaukee], as [pitcher] John Lackey said before the series, ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee, and it will be another big one in St. Louis. We intend to clinch there, and I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”
Zobrist, the MVP of last season’s World Series, hit a two-run homer in the seventh inning to increase a Cubs lead from 1-0 to 3-0. They added two more in the eighth, on a two-run double by Anthony Rizzo.
But the real star of the day was lefty Quintana, who pitched the second shutout of his career. He moved to 7-3 since the Cubs acquired him in a July trade with the White Sox. Quintana threw 116 pitches over nine innings but only 13 over the final two.
He agreed that it’s playoff time.
“I don’t know yet because I haven’t been [to the playoffs], but this series was huge,” he said. “Pretty tight games. Everybody keeps fighting all the innings. And the defense played really good, too.”
The Cubs acquired Quintana for the playoff push and beyond. His manager said he believes a game like Sunday’s can provide a shot of confidence.
“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” said Joe Maddon. “Games like that, to me, can be kind of career altering for a pitcher. When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”
The Cubs have a chance this week to clinch their third straight playoff berth. Two years ago, they won the wild card and beat the Cardinals at Wrigley Field to clinch the division series. When Zobrist referenced Cubs players who have been with the team for a while, he might have been talking about first baseman Anthony Rizzo and the satisfaction he might take from clinching in St. Louis.
“I would really love to be able to do it at Wrigley and use our new facilities even more,” Rizzo said. “St. Louis is a good baseball city. They appreciate good baseball. We play them well. They play us well. So if we do clinch there, it will be nice. They are our division rivals. To clinch anywhere, I don’t think it’s any different anywhere you can clinch.”