Just before the All Star Break, the Cubs overtook the Brewers for first place in the National League Central Division, as the Crew was swept in five games by the surprising Pirates.
There they remained, alone or with a share of the division lead, through July, August, and most of September.
But the long season wore down the team, and MLB’s scheduling ineptitude saw them dress for baseball games on 30 consecutive days and – still – only have one true off day since August 20. The better-rested Brewers got hot, eating away at the Cubs’ lead and forcing game 163 to break the tie for the division.
In front of the Wrigley faithful, the Brewers put away the Cubs 3-1, the single game earning them both the division title and home-field advantage (despite their 8-11 record against the Cubs prior to that) while forcing the Cubs into a sudden-death playoff against the Rockies.
Still, while this all seems like doom – and certainly, a coin-flip game to start the postseason is plenty bleak – it might not be the worst thing for the Cubs. An overly optimistic take? Absolutely. But the Cubs need it, and the backs-against-the-wall stakes might just be enough to make the question marks that have plagued this team all year seem small.
The Cubs have been here before – only it was a pleasant surprise, not a rude awakening.
The 2015 Cubs contended before they were supposed to, a tantalizing prelude to the unquestionable dominance of the 2016 World Series champions. They did it on the backs of huge surprises (like Cy Young-winner Jake Arrieta) and big-hitting rookies (like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber).
They went on an incredible second-half run and won 97 games – a total that would have led any division other than the NL Central, where it was good for only third place behind the Pirates (98-64) and Cardinals (100-62).
Still, the Cubs were in the postseason for the first time since 2008 after a long and grueling rebuild – one that wasn’t even supposed to be over yet. That made every postseason win pure icing on the cake, and took the sting out of their eventual NLCS sweep at the hands of the Mets.
The 2018 Cubs season to this point is almost a mirror image of 2015. Instead of the up-and-coming surprise team, they were the division favorites – and instead of falling short in the standings to a declining powerhouse (the Cardinals), they ran out of gas against their surprising counterparts to the north, the Brewers.
New faces on the Brewers made huge contributions, just like what the Cubs got from their up-and-coming rookies in 2015. And injuries took their toll on the 2018 Cubs, just as the 2015 Cardinals started to wear down near the end of 2015, especially when it came to their rotation.
It’s even spookier when you look at these teams’ September stats: The 2015 Cardinals and 2018 Cubs went 15-13 and 16-12, respectively; the 2015 Cubs and 2018 Brewers went 19-9 and 19-7 down the stretch. The teams running out of gas had September run differentials of -6 (Cardinals) and +7 (2018 Cubs), while the teams hot on their heels pushed those numbers to +49 (2015 Cubs) and +67 (Brewers).
By the time the 2015 NLDS happened, it was all but inevitably, as the Cubs downed the Cardinals in four games following a 4-0 shutdown of the Pirates.
A wake-up call – at just the right time
So what’s the difference this time? What’s to stop history from repeating itself in a strange twist of baseball fate, with the Cubs on the short end of the stick this time?
Well, in 2015 the Cardinals didn’t know what was hitting them until it was too late. Their wake-up call was the NLDS – and once that series is over, you’re out.
The Cubs, on the other hand, already got a taste in the division tiebreaker. And while losing Game 163 certainly made their path through the playoffs a lot more difficult, it didn’t end their season – just put them on the brink. This 2018 Cubs team has seemingly made a habit out of getting forced to the brink before pushing back in a big way (subscription required for that link).
Last year’s team never really seemed to push back, as they sleepwalked into the playoffs, barely survived to extend the Nats’ first-round woes, and were convincingly drubbed by the Dodgers in the NLCS.
It’s not 2017 anymore, though. And while it’s not 2015 either (nor 2016 for that matter ayyyyy), and the Cubs don’t have an Arrieta to shut down the Rockies, they do have a Jon Lester. They might not have the surprising rookie Kyle Schwarber, but they do have a David Bote, and an MVP-candidate (albeit probable runner-up) Javier Baez.
And if the Cubs survive tonight’s date with the Rockies, I’d expect a lot more 2015 than 2017 as they head to Milwaukee. At any rate, the Brewers would know they have a problem at Miller Park.