MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Cubs' 97-win season could be just the start

Cubs' 97-win season could be just the start

MILWAUKEE -- On Sunday, the 2015 Chicago Cubs won their 97th game. At this point, there is much more reason to focus on what they have accomplished, as opposed to what they have not.

The Cubs held up their end of the bargain on Sunday, finishing the regular season with a 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. But the Pittsburgh Pirates refused to cooperate, defeating Cincinnati, 4-0, to take the No. 1 National League Wild Card spot.

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So the Cubs did not gain home-field advantage for Wednesday's Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, which will be broadcast at 7 p.m. CT on TBS, with the winner advancing to play St Louis in the National League Division Series. Of course the Cubs would like to play the Wild Card Game at Wrigley Field, but there are valid reasons why the location of this game may not be an all-important factor.

"We'd love to do this in front of our fans," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said on Sunday. "Now we've got to find a way to get back there."

Date Result
Oct. 7 CHC 4, PIT 0

The way would be beating Pittsburgh in the Wild Card Game. And one way to look at that would be that you could play the Cubs any place on planet Earth, and if Jake Arrieta was pitching for the Cubs, victory would still beckon to the North Siders. Arrieta had a 0.75 earned run average after the All-Star break, the best post-All-Star ERA in the history of the game. He was 16-1 from June 21. Gerrit Cole is really good for the Pirates, but Arrieta is rewriting the record books in the category of pitching hot streaks.

And the Cubs' home/road splits were nearly identical; 49-32 at Wrigley Field, 48-33 away from the Friendly Confines. This was the first time that the Cubs had won more than 45 games on the road since 1945, when they won a franchise record 49.

"Our only concern was that we could bring [the Wild Card Game] home for our fans," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Look at our record. Just one game separates our home and road records this year. I mean that sincerely ... We wanted to play in front of our fans. That would be the only separator for me."

The Cubs have traveled a great distance in a short period of time. In the last four seasons, they had averaged 94-plus defeats. If you didn't understand the actual reasons for this transformation you could regard this as a miracle; water-into-wine stuff.

Rizzo's two-run single

So taking the second Wild Card spot in these circumstances doesn't seem like much of letdown.

"How could you possibly be disappointed with anything that our players have done this year?" Maddon said. "It's pretty phenomenal for baseball in general and in this division, to have that many wins coming out of this division, I'm certain it never happened before since the division setup. It's pretty incredible.

"The whole body of work by the entire group, it's pretty darn impressive. And don't forget our coaching staff. The coaches did a wonderful job of prepping them. Look at what the pitchers have done lately. Look at our offensive players, what they've done. Look at how much better our defense has become over the course of the season. Give our coaching staff a lot of credit."

Maddon, meanwhile, set a franchise record for victories in a first year as Cubs manager, surpassing Jim Frey, who had 96 in 1984.

The Cubs finished with the third best record in the NL Central, but they also finished with the third best record in the Major Leagues. Their 97-65 record would have won every other division, but not the one that they are in -- the one with the St. Louis Cardinals. On one hand, it is a difficult thing to have a season this good, winning 97 games, and still not winning a division. To this notion, Maddon responded:

"Pittsburgh could win 98 and not win a division. That's what I take comfort from."

The Cubs, not that long ago leading the league in doom and gloom, are now poised for October baseball and even greater success down the road.

"We're in a great position, top to bottom, to have success," Rizzo said. "Now it's on us players to make sure we continue to have that success."

This was the year of The Great Big Turnaround for the Cubs. And this 97-victory regular season, as good as it was, could be only the beginning. Next up, a chance for much more October baseball.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.