CHICAGO -- This spring, Joe Maddon arrived in Mesa, Ariz., with a checklist. One of those items was to win the National League Central, which the Cubs did late Thursday for the first time since 2008, with some help from the Giants.
The Cubs missed a chance to pop champagne at Wrigley Field after losing to the Brewers, 5-4, on Thursday. But the Giants beat the Cardinals, 6-2, in San Francisco, and that secured the division title for Chicago.
Maddon's checklist this year included getting off to a good start, which the Cubs did, going 17-5 in April. They needed to stay healthy, which was challenged in the third game when Kyle Schwarber suffered a season-ending knee injury. So far, they've managed to avoid any other serious ailments.
Maddon wanted the young players to be themselves, knowing they would make mistakes. What he didn't anticipate was the growth spurt. Kris Bryant, last year's NL Rookie of the Year Award winner, is this year's leading candidate for the NL Most Valuable Player Award. Bryant, who has moved from third to the outfield to first to wherever Maddon wants, isn't carrying the workload alone. Anthony Rizzo may be Bryant's biggest threat for the MVP Award, posting his second 30-homer, 100-RBI season.
Addison Russell, 22, had a second-half surge, sparked by his selection as the starting shortstop on the NL All-Star team, and has 91 RBIs. Maddon saw the defensive talent Javier Baez had, but couldn't have predicted how well he would adjust to being moved around the infield in Ben Zobrist fashion.
When he puts his scout's cap on, which Maddon will often do, he'll remind you that this is just the beginning for the Cubs.
"The difference is the youth here," Maddon said. "To be this young and to be this good, that's the part that's different for me, and that's the part that stands out. Everyone is saying how good we are, but I'm telling you, these guys are going to get better."
The league is on notice.
Maddon's checklist also included the right attitude. The first T-shirts Cubs players were given said, "Embrace the Target," which was the manager's way of telling them to be prepared after a 97-win season and trip to the NL Championship Series in 2015. Bear cubs, a mime, and a disc jockey kept spring camp interesting, and the fun continued in the regular season with a zany suits trip and another pajama party.
The toughest stretch was a 24-game run prior to the All-Star break. But after regrouping, the Cubs got a burst of energy when they acquired hard-throwing Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees on July 25. The so-called dog days of August were anything but as the Cubs went 22-6 that month to open a double-digit lead in the Central.
The Cubs have overwhelmed opponents, posting a plus-200 run differential. But when all is said and done, it comes down to pitching and defense, and that's where the Cubs have dominated. The starters have led the NL most of the season, and Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are 1-2 in the Majors in ERA. Remember, Hendricks began Spring Training battling for the fifth-starter spot.
"I'm amazed every night, I love to watch it every night," Maddon said of the defense. "For that group clamoring for offense, just check out some pitching and defense. [Games that end] 1-0 and 2-1 can be so exciting if you know what's going on out there."
The Cubs will party after Friday's game against the Brewers. And then they'll start prepping for the next round.
"We're proud of what we've done in the season so far," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "In October, you can't make the same type of proclamations. [In the postseason] it's about rising to the challenge and momentum, and playing your best in the biggest spots and getting your breaks. It's a combination of talent, skill and timing, and there is truly no other group I'd rather go into October with. We're set up to fight those battles."
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.