The Cubs’ quest for an NL Central title comes down to the final weekend

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon congratulates Kyle Schwarber (12) and Ian Happ (8) after the two players scored on a triple by David Bote in the second inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

CHICAGO – It’s not ideal, but here they are.

Many didn’t see the race for the National League Central division going to the final weekend of the season. It seemed unlikely even a week ago when Joe Maddon’s team built a 2 1/2 game lead after the City Series against the White Sox.

Seven home games were ahead, and the second place Brewers were heading to St. Louis for a critical three-game series with the Cardinals. Yet Milwaukee didn’t back down, sweeping their division rivals away, while the Cubs had to rally from two bad games to start their home series with the Pirates to earn a split.

Now the two-time defending champions face the Cardinals for a three-game series at Wrigley Field with the third-straight title on the line. With a Magic Number of three, the Cubs can lock up the division no matter what with a sweep of St. Louis, who remains in their own fight for a Wild Card spot.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee hosts Tigers at Miller Park in search of their first division title since 2011.

It’s not a “Do or Die” situation for either team since each has clinched at least a Wild Card spot in the 2018 MLB Playoffs. But whoever finishes second would be forced into the one-game Wild Card Playoff on Tuesday. Should they finished tied after the week, the Cubs would host the Brewers in a one-game playoff for the division title, with the loser forced to play the next night in the Wild Card game.

This is something new for this era of the Cubs, where playoff fate was usually decided before the final weekend. The 2017 NL Central title was clinched in the final week of the season, while 2016’s division championship was won in mid-September.

In Maddon’s first season in 2015, the Cubs were locked into the second Wild Card spot for the majority of the final month and finished there despite a strong finish.

Clinching may be something new for this era of the Cubs, but coming down to the wire has happened a number of times in the past.

In 2007, the Cubs clinched the division against the Reds on the third-to-last game in Cincinnati. It completed a strong second half where they erased an 8 1/2 game deficit to the Brewers for a playoff spot.

Four years earlier, the Cubs fought off the Astros in the final week of the season as they took a doubleheader from the Pirates on the second-to-last day of the season at Wrigley Field to clinch. A few weeks later, the Cubs won the National League Division Series before dropping a heartbreaking National League Championship series to the Marlins.

Twenty years ago on Friday, the Cubs completed a competitive NL Wild Card pursuit against the Giants at Wrigley Field with a one-game playoff. Gary Gaetti homered, pitcher Steve Trachsel carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning, and Rod Beck held off San Francisco’s late rally to seal a 5-3 win that sent the Cubs to the playoffs.

Just getting to that point took some help the day before. The Cubs lost to the Astros in Houston that Sunday, and as they were walking off the field at the Astrodome, they learned that San Francisco had lost on a walk-off homer to the Rockies, keeping them alive for a postseason berth.

Eighty years ago on Friday came another dramatic late-season Cubs’ moment that helped them to a pennant.

Down by a half-game to the Pirates on September 28, 1938, the Cubs were tied with Pittsburgh in a game that went into the late afternoon. Remember, Wrigley Field didn’t have lights, so games would still be called on occasion because of darkness, and this game was in danger of having that happen.

But in the ninth Gabby Hartnett sent everyone home happy when he parked a walk-off homer into the left-center field bleachers to give the Cubs a 6-5 win. The victory vaulted them over the Pirates for first in the NL Central, and they clinched the National League pennant a few days later.

Before the Cubs won their second World Series title in 1908, they had to survive the most bizarre finish in franchise history.

The drama with the Giants began on September 23rd of that year at the Polo Grounds in New York. Al Bridwell appeared to give the home team a victory in the bottom of the ninth when he smacked a two-out single to bring in the winning run to the plate.

That’s when the drama began. Fred Merkle, who was on first, ran straight to the center field locker room after the hit to avoid the crowds that were pouring onto the field in celebration. Meanwhile, the Cubs were able to find the ball in the crowd, it was thrown to Johnny Evers in the infield, who then tagged second base for the force out.

In the chaos, umpires consulted and ruled Merkle out, but with so many fans on the field, the game wasn’t able to continue and was declared a tie.

When both teams finished tied for the pennant in early October, the National League held up the ruling on Merkle, and had the Cubs and Giants play a one-game playoff for the pennant. Taking place at the Polo Grounds on October 8th, the visitors won the game 4-2 as the Cubs clinched their third-consecutive pennant.