CHICAGO » Wrigley Field was dark and empty when a loud cheer reverberated throughout the neighborhood surrounding the iconic ballpark.
While the Chicago Cubs decided to delay their party, their long-downtrodden fans were ready to celebrate.
Chicago wasted its first chance to clinch the NL Central title when pinch-hitter Scooter Gennett delivered a tiebreaking, two-run double in the seventh inning Thursday night, leading the Milwaukee Brewers to a 5-4 victory. But St. Louis’ 6-2 loss at San Francisco completed the Cubs’ season-long dominance of the division.
It appeared manager Joe Maddon and his players were long gone when the West Coast game wrapped up. But the final out in San Francisco touched off a celebration in Chicago that included honking horns and chanting in the streets.
“This is just the first step,” Maddon said before the Cardinals lost. “I mean, we have much larger baseball fish to fry in our skillet.”
The Cubs (93-53) were hoping to begin a 10-game homestand with a boozy celebration of their first division title since 2008. But Keon Broxton homered and Orlando Arcia drove in two runs for Milwaukee, making Chicago wait a little while longer.
Now the party shifts to Friday, right after the Cubs’ afternoon start against the Brewers. It might be a bit anticlimactic for Maddon and Co., but they took all the drama out of the division race long ago.
Led by a stellar pitching staff and MVP contenders Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, Chicago got off to a sizzling 25-6 start. After stumbling into the All-Star break, the Cubs pulled away with a 22-6 August that turned the NL Central race into a mere formality.
But the division title is not how this group of Cubs will be judged, not this year. After running roughshod over the rest of the majors for most of the season, they are trying to end the franchise’s famous championship drought that goes all the way back to when the Cubs beat the Tigers in the 1908 World Series.
“We’ve got a lot ahead of us. We really do,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said before the loss to Milwaukee. “It kind of all boils down to how you perform in October.”
It’s only the fourth time the Cubs have reached the postseason in consecutive seasons. They got in as a wild card last year and made it to the NL Championship Series before they were swept by the New York Mets.
The offseason additions of Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward only added to the anticipation for the Cubs’ loyal fan base, and they have delivered up until this point. But many of those same fans also were around for the last division title, when the 2008 Cubs won 97 games and then were swept by the Dodgers in the division series.
“There’s no team I’d rather be going into October with,” Epstein said. “But there are never favorites in October the same way there are in the regular season.”
Jorge Soler hit a two-run homer for the Cubs, who had won three of four. Mike Montgomery pitched six solid innings and helped himself with a tying single in the fourth for his first career hit.
Justin Grimm (1-1) replaced Montgomery in the seventh, and the Brewers put runners on first and third with one out. Gennett, batting for Jimmy Nelson (8-14), blooped an 0-2 curveball into the corner in left for a 5-3 Milwaukee lead.
“I was just trying to put the ball in play,” Gennett said. “He’s a guy who throws a lot of curveballs so it’s important not to get too big or try to do too much. It’s really just, get a good pitch to hit and put it in play.”
The Cubs got one back on Heyward’s RBI double in the eighth, but Tyler Thornburg threw a called third strike past pinch-hitter Willson Contreras with runners at the corners to end the inning.
Thornburg also worked the ninth for his 10th save in 15 chances.
“It was just a flat-out good ballgame,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said. “Obviously, with where they’re at, there was great energy in the park tonight.”
Brewers: RHP Michael Blazek (right forearm strain) threw a simulated game. Counsell would like to get Blazek into some games before the end of the season, but said there’s no rush. “The goal with Mike is just to go into the offseason healthy,” Counsell said.
Cubs: RHP Pedro Strop, who tweaked his right groin while working his way back from arthroscopic left knee surgery, threw a bullpen and said it went well. “He’s getting close,” Maddon said. “It’s not far off.”
Maddon likely will rest several regulars when the series resumes Friday afternoon. RHP John Lackey (9-8, 3.35 ERA) is scheduled to face Brewers RHP Chase Anderson (8-11, 4.53).