There were a couple of series this week in which the Cubs almost couldn't help being helped. The Giants and Phillies played a set in Philadelphia, and then the Reds visited the Diamondbacks over the weekend. Alas, in all the games that didn't set potential Wild Card rivals in opposition to one another, the Cubs got very little help.
Arizona, improbably, swept the Rangers, before taking three of four from Cincinnati. The Giants recovered from losing the first two games of both series to salvage the finales and stay afloat. The Reds, in turn, swept the Angels before their desert defeat. The Phillies swept the useless Cardinals this weekend. The Brewers haven't lost since August 17.
No matter. The Cubs' scorching-hot second half has earned them the right to focus simply on taking care of their own business. By going 5-2 on their road trip through Detroit and Pittsburgh, they raised their playoff odds to 65.6 percent, according to FanGraphs. That site has them down from division title odds of about 25 percent a week ago to just 14.9 percent, thanks to the Brewers' unstoppability, but obviously, the Cubs get a chance to change those numbers in a big way this week at Wrigley Field.
In the meantime, Baseball Prospectus is more sanguine, anyway. They had the Cubs at a very healthy 39.6 percent likelihood to win the Central entering Sunday, and while another Milwaukee win slightly dented that figure, it's still much more encouraging than 15 percent. Because the PECOTA projection system is unyieldingly stubborn in its belief in the hopeless Padres, they still give the Cubs worse overall playoff odds than does FanGraphs, but that problem will take care of itself. The Cubs just need to keep winning.
Obviously, that's easier said than done. They did survive the 12-game soft spot in their schedule with an 8-4 record, but they looked lucky to be playing the White Sox, Royals, Tigers, and Pirates in the process. Their next four opponents are the Brewers, Reds, Giants, and Diamondbacks, and they need to be more ready and play better ball if they want to even go .500 over that stretch. That's doubly true because the schedule is so grueling, logistically. They only have one off day coming, and it will immediately be neutralized by a doubleheader.
That said, these are must-win series, and that's bad news for all the Cubs' opponents. This team has played a lot of must-win games already this year, given the position they were in as the trade deadline loomed, and they've met the challenge each and every time. That aforementioned .500 mark for these 13 games (7-6 is the target, so it's technically better than .500 that we're looking for, but still) would be more than sufficient.
By going 27-14 since the All-Star break, the Cubs have given themselves breathing room. They still need to be very good over the balance of the season, but they can make most of their hay against the Rockies and Pirates. They only need to keep their heads above water in the tough fortnight ahead. That's the privilege they've earned, and it's why their playoff odds are looking rosy with five weeks left in the season.
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