Chicago Cubs: 5 Players Stepping Up Big in Clutch Playoff Race Pressure

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2017

Chicago Cubs: 5 Players Stepping Up Big in Clutch Playoff Race Pressure

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    At 85-67 entering play Friday, the Chicago Cubs hold a 4.5-game lead over the upstart Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. Considering they've got 10 games left to play, it's a safe bet they'll win the division.

    Still, the defending MLB champions are fighting for momentum. They've won eight of their last 10 and elevated their run differential to a solid plus-102, but they'll almost surely be the weakest division winner in the Senior Circuit by record, behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals.

    As such, the Cubbies need players to come up clutch in the playoff-race crucible. They busted the ancient curse of the billy goat, but winning a second consecutive Commissioner's Trophy is nearly as daunting. 

    Here, then, are five Cubs players who are doing their part to get Chicago back on the October stage and rain more confetti on the North Side.

CF Albert Almora Jr.

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    It's easy to get lost in the Cubs' galaxy of young stars, but Albert Almora Jr. has been streaking across the firmament of late.

    The 23-year-old is hitting .343 with a 1.000 OPS and 14 RBI in September and has solidified an outfield that was a question mark for much of the season.

    Could he be Chicago's glove/bat October wild card, the way Javier Baez was in 2016? Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks thinks so.

    "He's got the baseball IQ. He's obviously got the talent," Hendricks said, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. "And the way he's been playing lately, as hot as he is, he's definitely one of our best options for that."

RHP Wade Davis

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    Last season, the Cubs acquired flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline and rode him to a title.

    This year, they traded for their closer over the winter, snagging right-hander Wade Davis from the Kansas City Royals.

    We don't yet know if Davis will get a ring with the Cubs, but he's pitched well enough to deserve one.

    The 32-year-old has been stellar overall, posting a 2.01 ERA and converting 32 of 32 save opportunities. He's been even better in September, posting a 0.93 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .125 average.

    "He's had a great year, perfect in save situations," Cubs executive Theo Epstein said, per Wittenmyer. "He's been a leader out there. Any team would love to have him."

RHP John Lackey

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    Quick: Which Cubs starting pitcher has the best stat line in September? Is it resurgent ace Jake Arrieta? Veteran lefty and postseason stud Jon Lester? Trade-deadline pickup Jose Quintana?

    Nope. It's 38-year-old John Lackey, pitching in his 15th big league season.

    In three September starts, Lackey has struck out 18 in 18.2 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .156 average and posting a 1.93 ERA.

    He made headlines Sept. 15 when he was ejected from a pivotal game against the St. Louis Cardinals for arguing balls and strikes (he was right, by the way). 

    Mostly, though, Lackey deserves attention for turning it on at the right moment and proving why his 4.62 ERA in 2017 belies a seasoned big-game pitcher hungry for the autumn spotlight. 

3B Kris Bryant

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    With all the hype surrounding Giancarlo Stanton's home run barrage and Bryce Harper's injury comeback, Kris Bryant has been something of a forgotten man.

    Yet the reigning NL MVP has hit .322 with a .961 OPS since the All-Star break. What's more, he launched a game-winning two-run home run in the 10th inning Thursday to seal a key 5-3 victory against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

    At 25 years old, he's just entering his prime and is gaining steam when he needs to.

    It's not a revolutionary notion, but another week-and-change of Bryant doing Bryant things would give the Cubbies quite a headwind going into the playoffs.

LF Kyle Schwarber

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    Bryant's second-half soaring is well and good, but no Cubs hitter has risen higher than Kyle Schwarber.

    After looking borderline lost for much of the season and hitting a paltry .178 in the first half, Schwarber has boasted a 1.038 OPS with five home runs in September. 

    The 24-year-old—who teased tantalizing power in 2015 and was an unlikely, injury-comeback postseason hero in 2016—is back.

    "It has been a crazy few years," Schwarber said of his bumpy MLB ride, per Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's all about learning. You learn how to fight through the adversity of an injury, then you come out, and you have some struggles and get demoted and learn from that. I'm still progressing. It's all part of the game."

    Will the next part of his and the Cubs' game be another Commissioner's Trophy? For that, we wait and see.

       

    All statistics current as of Thursday an courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference