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SportsMonday: Cubs Fortify

As well as the Cubs have played the last two-and-a-half weeks - and they played particularly pleasing baseball on Sunday to take the rubber game of the series in Milwaukee 4-2 to up their division lead to 2 1/2 games - goings on in the eastern and western regions of the National League have to still be giving them pause.

And so they did something about it late Sunday night.

The acquisition of the Tigers' Alex Avila to back-up catch and lefty Justin Wilson to help in the pen for a low, low price of prospects not expected to ever impact the Cubs' big league roster is primarily a statement that the Cubs know they need to do everything humanly possible to pile up big-league talent now, not prospects. That is, if they want to truly compete with the Nationals out east and the Dodgers back the other way.

Everyone knows anything can happen in the tiny sample size that is a baseball playoff series but the Nationals have been so good this year, and the Dodgers have been so much better.

The Nationals' best four hitters - Daniel Murphy (96 games), Bryce Harper (95), Ryan Zimmerman (93) and Anthony Rendon (96) - go into today's action with OPS's of .955, 1.058, .959 and 1.003. In case anyone isn't entirely familiar with the On-Base-Plus-Slugging stat, suffice it to say those numbers are ridiculously good.

Kris Bryant's OPS, even after a great weekend in Milwaukee, is .920, and Anthony Rizzo's is .896. In other words, the Nationals, who lead the National League East by 13 games, have four hitters who are having significantly better seasons than the Cubs' best hitter (Bryant).

And the Dodgers, well, their outrageously good pitching staff has been hitting on all cylinders all season long thanks to the leadership of modern pitching maestro (aka manager) Dave Roberts. The team from Los Angeles goes into today with a 74-31 record. That is 11 games better than - wait for it - the Nationals!

First and foremost of course, the Cubs have needed to take care of the business in front of them since the All-Star break. And they have done that with 13 wins in their last 16 games.

The best part of the last 48 hours, in addition to the Cubs doing some serious damage to the Brewers' collective competitive psyche, was the fact that the team survived a terrible day hitting to pull out a 2-1 win on Saturday. Then on Sunday they started doing something about their struggles to have quality at-bats.

Quite simply, the Cubs had a whole bunch of strong trips to the plate on Sunday after striking out a ridiculous 17 times the night before. Initially Addison Russell led the charge, although he wasn't rewarded until his second strong AB. After he was robbed of a hit with a shoestring catch in center, his next at-bat resulted in the RBI single that doubled the Cubs' first lead.

It was Victor Caratini who had perhaps the best at-bat of the day and certainly the most timely. After the Brewers rallied to tie it at 2, the backup catcher who it turns out can also handle backing up first (Rizzo sat out with some back soreness) fouled off several two-strike pitches before finding a fastball he could handle and launching it well over the fence in straightaway centerfield in the seventh inning.

It was his first major league home run and it gave the Cubs a lead they would not relinquish.

The next inning, Bryant had his second straight great AB (his first resulted in a double) on his way to his 20th homer of the season and an insurance run.

The big key again for the Cubs was pitching, in particular the starting variety and the relief supplied by guys who have not been Maddon's first (Carl Edwards), second (Pedro Strop) or third (Koji Uehara) choices for pitching clutch seventh and eight innings.

John Lackey was tough again over six two-run innings and survived shaky defense and one of those marathon replay reviews that drive fans bonkers. The review happened in the sixth and it was just the sort of thing that could have been a major distraction, except Lackey got the third out on a ground ball on the next pitch.

Justin Grimm looked great on the mound in the seventh and Hector Rondon was even better in the eighth. Given how good the pen has been, I'm not sure how much work there will be for Wilson. And given how much Willson Contreras wants to play every day, the same for Avila.

But of course something always comes up (injuries, slumps, etc.) in baseball and Maddon always finds ways to squeeze in playing time for quality players.
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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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