The 'inevitable' crown: Clinching just the beginning for Cubs

CHICAGO -- There was no rush to celebrate on the mound. No dramatic walk-off moment to send the Wrigley faithful into a clinching frenzy. The players didn't even stick around to see if they would end the night as division champions or have to come back to cut that final '1' off the magic number themselves Friday afternoon.

Sure, it's anticlimactic to back into the playoffs, but when you do it on Sept. 15 -- or is it 16 -- it hardly takes away from the sentiment. The Chicago Cubs lost their "clinching" game to the Milwaukee Brewers5-4 on Thursday night, but when the St. Louis Cardinals fell in San Francisco later in the evening the Cubs could still call themselves NL Central champions.

It was only a couple of days ago, while the Cubs were in the midst of taking two of three from those Cardinals, that outfielder Dexter Fowler declared it was "inevitable" his team would clinch soon enough.

It was an easy statement to make considering it's September and the Cubs held a 17-game lead at the time, but he could have made the same declaration on Aug. 15, July 7 or even all the way back on June 1. The Cubs' first division title since 2008 was months in the making and has felt "inevitable" since their incredible 25-6 start.

"It's a lot different scenario than last year," pitcher Jake Arrieta said Thursday. "Not knowing where we were playing [in October]. Trying to catch the Cardinals. They had a lead and held onto it. Knowing where we're going to go [this year] and having a brief period of off time to prepare, it just gives us a lot of options."

Last year the Cubs made the postseason quite easily but fought hard to capture the division, eventually failing by three games to St. Louis. That push took its toll as Arrieta, the eventual Cy Young winner, hit a wall by the time the Cubs got to the NLCS. He wasn't the only one as manager Joe Maddon exacted all he could out of his young team -- but this year things can be different.

"Overall ... treat it like a spring training," Maddon said regarding the rest of the regular season. "The kind of work you do before the game and the lineups. Make it more spring training-like."

To truly understand how this season came about, and where it goes from here, we need to go back to the end of last year and the beginning of this one.

The Cubs were just figuring out who they could be in the second half of 2015 and rode a wave of youthful talent all the way to the NLCS. Those four games -- all losses to the New York Mets-- did nothing to diminish the excitement created by the previous months. Remember, the youngest team in the league had won its final eight regular-season games, shut out Pittsburgh in the wild-card game and steamrollered the Cardinals in the divisional round. Bowing out quietly to the Mets wasn't viewed as the end of anything, just the beginning.

Fast forward to this spring. A short offseason brought one of the more memorable quotes from reigning Rookie of the Year -- and current MVP candidate --Kris Bryant. He was asked how he viewed 2016 coming off of 2015.

"It's just a continuation," Bryant said back in February. "With a three-month break. That's what it feels like in here. We're just going to pick up where we left off but hopefully play a little longer this year."

Picking up where they left off is exactly what the Cubs did, partly because of Bryant's mindset and partly because Maddon made sure of it. With offseason expectations through the roof, he took advantage of it all instead of running away. He instructed his team to "embrace the target" and in doing so the players were locked in by the time April arrived.

This team's greatest moments came early when other teams -- including contending ones -- were still feeling their way. Meanwhile, the Cubs were firing on all cylinders right from Game 1, a 9-0 drubbing of the Los Angeles Angels.

Even then there was a feeling it could be a special season as Angel Stadium was full of Cubs fans. That scene would play out over and over again on the road as chants of M-V-P were directed toward Kris Bryant at Dodger Stadium, and Ryan Braun was booed at his home park in Milwaukee. Those are only two examples of when the Cubs had an extremely vocal crowd cheering for them on the road.

"The fans have been incredible," Fowler said. "All year long, wherever we go. I've never seen anything like it."

Even well before clinching late Thursday, players were thinking about a longer postseason run then they had the year before. The Cubs have followed the path of many teams before them. First came learning how to win, then actually doing it and now comes finishing the job. Even though Maddon often reminds people he doesn't have fully developed players at many key positions, the Cubs simply don't have a glaring weakness this year. All areas of their game are better than last season.

"As a team, it was our first goal, but the focus of this group has been far beyond that," Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks said. "We know where we have to go, so it's a small stepping stone."

That has been the theme since returning to the playoffs became a sure thing -- so basically since spring training. As far as the Cubs are concerned, Thursday was just the beginning of what's to come.

They might have backed into the title but in reality they took it from day one.

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