The Chicago Cubs took a step toward ending their World Series drought Thursday night when they clinched the National League Central. The milestone came by virtue of the St. Louis Cardinals‘ 6-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants despite Chicago’s 5-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.  

The Cubs not only clinched the division; they ran away with it. No team in baseball holds as commanding of an advantage as Chicago’s 17-game lead over the Cardinals. In fact, St. Louis is closer to the last-place Cincinnati Reds (30.5 games back) in the division than it is to Chicago, and it is still a legitimate wild-card contender.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cubs made history by clinching at such an early juncture: 

This marks the Cubs’ first division crown since 2008, when they finished 97-64 but lost in the division series to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

There are a number of reasons Chicago won the National League Central this year, including the guiding presence of three-time Manager of the Year Joe Maddon. However, it begins with the starting pitching staff that holds the best ERA in baseball at 2.89.

It is a testament to the depth of the group that defending National League Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta may be the third-best starter on his own team this year. He has been excellent with a 17-6 record, 2.91 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, but Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks have matched or surpassed his efforts.

The 32-year-old Lester is pitching as if he is in the middle of his prime with a 2.40 ERA that has paved the way for a 17-4 record. Hendricks uses pinpoint control and a nasty changeup to dominate hitters to the tune of a 2.03 ERA and 0.96 WHIP even though he doesn’t light up the radar gun.

The offense doesn’t need to pile up runs with a staff like that, but it has all season and ranks third in the league in runs. What’s perhaps most impressive about the offense is it performed so well even though slugger Kyle Schwarber suffered a season-ending injury after two games and free-agent signing Jason Heyward has disappointed at the plate with a .228 average, six home runs and 43 RBI. 

Kris Bryant is the National League MVP front-runner thanks to his eye-popping numbers at .295/.388/.562 with 37 dingers and 95 RBI. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote that the only way to make the case for someone else as MVP was to “knock Bryant down a few pegs,” but he noted it “can’t reasonably be done, on account of Bryant having been the best all-around performer in his league.”

Sullivan pointed to Bryant’s impressive fielding and versatility in addition to the offense.

Elsewhere, Anthony Rizzo protects Bryant in the order with 31 home runs and 101 RBI, and they represent as fearsome a one-two punch as pitchers will face in the league.

Chicago’s complementary pieces would be stars on many other teams. Addison Russell is only 22 years old and provided a power boost in his second year with 20 home runs and 91 RBI. Dexter Fowler sets the table from the leadoff spot with speed and power, and Javy Baez’s versatility allowed the club to survive Schwarber’s loss.

There are also veteran leaders such as Ben Zobrist and David Ross who will likely prove beneficial in the postseason.

Attention will turn toward the upcoming playoffs now that Chicago has clinched the division, and it will face a pressure-packed scenario given its history. This franchise has not won the World Series since 1908, and the expectations from a desperate fanbase could weigh on it.

However, the Cubs picked up valuable postseason experience last year by winning the do-or-die National League Wild Card Game and beating the Cardinals in the next round. They lost to the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, but October baseball won’t be a new experience for the Cubs’ core.

Chicago’s pitching staff will make it a difficult out in any postseason series since Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks and playoff-tested John Lackey will likely start every game. What’s more, Maddon can shorten individual contests with a lights-out bullpen that features Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman.

The formula is in place for a drought-killing postseason, but the Cubs will first celebrate their division crown.

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