CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs are headed to the playoffs.
For the first time since 2008, the North Siders will head to MLB’s postseason. The Cubs will also look to win their first playoff game since the 2003 National League Championship Series. (The team was swept in both 2007 and 2008 in the first round.)
The team boasted an exceptional 97-win record in baseball’s most competitive division, which saw three teams with more than 90 wins. The Cubs finished third of those teams, and will travel to Pittsburgh to face the division-foe Pirates in the National League wild-card game.
The Cubs’ 97 wins is the most by the franchise since 2008, and only the third time the team has won 90 or more games since 1998. The 2015 regular season has been one for the ages: It has seen a star free-agent signing, the rise of a home-grown talent, a no-hitter and everything in-between.
Here’s a look back at some of the best moments of the season (so far) for the 2015 Chicago Cubs.
— Oct. 31, 2014: A new man at the helm.
The Chicago Cubs hired a new manager shortly after the 2014 season. Replacing Rick Renteria, former Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon was hired by Chicago on Oct. 31. Maddon, then 60, had had some surprising success with a low-market Rays team, leading that franchise to four playoff berths in nine seasons.
Maddon was known for his ability to get the best out of young players and encouraging a loose, fun clubhouse atmosphere. As Cubs fans soon found out, he would not disappoint.
— Dec. 10, 2014: The Cubs add a proven postseason pitcher.
Some time during the waning hours of Tuesday, Dec. 9, and into the following morning, the Chicago Cubs won the sweepstakes for Jon Lester, the highly sought-after lefty with nearly unmatched postseason success. Lester was only two years removed from winning the World Series with the Boston Red Sox, his second with the team, and Chicago hoped he could translate that success to the Windy City. At the time of his signing, Lester boasted a 6-4 career playoff record with a 3.57 ERA. Lester had a habit of ramping it up the more the games mattered; his World Series record was a perfect 3-0, with a staggering ERA of 0.43.
The Cubs signed Lester to a six-year, $155 million contract. In 2015 the lefty had a down year in terms of wins (11-12) and ERA (3.34). But it will be in the playoffs, should the Cubs make it far enough, where Chicagoans hope the big-money signing pays off.
— April 17: A star is born.
Cubs fans got their first look at the future during a Friday afternoon game at Wrigley Field. Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant donned a major league uniform for the first time, stepping onto a field surrounded by hype and expectations few 23-year-olds could have endured.
Though he went hitless in his first game, Bryant followed the next day with his first major league hit — and RBI — during an 11-inning game against the Padres. He finished the day 2-3 with three walks. Cubs fans knew then, this was the beginning of something special.
Bryant ended the 2015 regular season with 26 home runs, 99 RBI and a .275 batting average.
— June 30: Working his magic.
The team was reeling. The Cubs had just suffered a five-game losing streak, and adding insult to injury was the fact they’d just been swept by the rival St. Louis Cardinals.
Then, Joe Maddon had an idea. The first-year manager for the Cubs brought in a magician — that’s right, a magician — to loosen things up, to ease distraction.
The magician proceeded to perform several tricks, impressing many in the clubhouse. “We’re always trying to create some magic around here, so why not bring a magician in?” Maddon said then, according to ESPN.
The team went on to beat the New York Mets 1-0, ending their skid.
— July 27 and Aug. 24: Walk-off city
Kris Bryant added to the magic of the 2015 Cubs in back-to-back months. On July 27, the rookie phenom hit a walk-off home run after the team had relinquished four runs in the top of the ninth to fall behind 8-7. With two outs and one on, in stepped Bryant. He launched a two-run shot to left center-field to give the Cubs the win.
Then, nearly a month later, on Aug. 24, he walked it off again at Wrigley Field, this time against the Cleveland Indians. Up to bat in a 1-1 game in the ninth, Bryant launched the game-winner to the bleachers, giving the Cubs their 20th win in 24 games.
— Aug. 9: Dethroning a champ
Winning any regular-season series is fun. Sweeping a series is even more fun. But sweeping a four-game series against the defending champions? It doesn’t get much better than that.
The Cubs did just that at the beginning of August. The defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants came into town for a four-game series at Wrigley Field, a pivotal matchup that could determine who would have the inside track to the National League wild-card game. The Giants were the model of a modern dynasty, having won three World Series in the past decade. But the Cubs let the champs know whose house it was — winning all four games, including a 2-0 victory on Aug. 9, capping the sweep.
The win gave the Cubs their 10th victory in 11 games, and pushed them to 3 1/2 games over the Giants for the second wild-card spot. They wouldn’t look back.
— Aug. 12: A miracle grab
Cubs star first baseman Anthony Rizzo made one of the plays of the season, leaping up on to the tarp to snag a foul ball against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The umpires at first converged to discuss whether the play was legal (or if Rizzo was in the stands) and upheld the out.
Rizzo’s catch game in the sixth inning of a one-run game. The Cubs won the game 3-2 in 10 innings on a walk-off home run by Miguel Montero.
— Aug. 30: That’s a no-no.
Perhaps the loudest and proudest moment of the Chicago Cubs 2015 regular season came during a Sunday night game, on the road, on the West Coast. On Aug. 30 Jake Arrieta, who had emerged as the Cubs’ sure ace, threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. The no-hitter also finished off a perfect 6-0 month for Arrieta.
The victory came before a national television audience, as the country got to see just how legitimate the Cubs were. The win at the time gave Arrieta his 17th win. He finished the season with 22 wins — and only six losses.
Arrieta is expected to start the Cubs’ do-or-die game against the Pirates on Wednesday. It’s hard to believe they’d have it any other way.
— Sep. 19: What a play, what a team
With a playoff spot all but locked up, the Chicago Cubs still wanted to defeat their bitter rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, during a September game at Wrigley Field.
With one on and two outs, the Cardinals looked as though they were threatening to tie the game. But then Addison Russell happened.
The Cardinals’ Stephen Piscotty hit what appeared to be a ground-ball base hit. But Russell robbed him, making a spectacular stop and then flipping to second base for the final out.
The play sent Wrigley Field into a frenzy, and it was symbolic of the whole Cubs’ season thus far: exciting, magical, clutch. Words that haven’t been spoken about this team in a long, long time.
The question now is: how long will it last?
The National League wild-card game is Wednesday at 7 p.m. central.