- The Washington Times
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dusty Baker started stacking notes when the season began. He thinks the pennant race is underway on Opening Day then carries until October. Baker is keenly watching the New York Mets, seeing who’s hot around the league, how the divisions are shaking out.

“Because games you don’t win now, you’re going to have to win later,” Baker said.

No one has won more now than the Chicago Cubs. Their run differential is on pace to be the best in history. Chicago’s early surge was enough to bring up discussions of them matching the Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games in 2001, but the Cubs have fallen off that pace. After 64 games that season, Seattle had won a preposterous 50 games. The Cubs are atop the major leagues with a plenty-good-enough 44 wins after losing to the Washington Nationals, 5-4, in 12 innings on Wednesday. They just won’t be challenging the Mariners’ single-season win record.

That leaves Chicago in search of sustainability. The Nationals join the rest of the National League in pursuit of more, slotting in behind the Cubs’ juggernaut in mid-June.

“It is a race,” said Baker, the Nationals’ manager. “You’re in the race long before you get to the end of the season. You’re in the race from the time the season starts. It just didn’t seem like a race in the beginning. But, as the months click off, you realize you’re in a race.”

The first two-plus months of the season have already positioned Chicago for the end. It leads baseball in team ERA, with a tidy 2.64 entering Wednesday’s end to a three-game series with the Nationals. Cubs manager Joe Maddon works with a fresh bullpen almost daily because of his starters’ ability to go into the seventh inning and the large leads they end up working with. That allows Maddon to use the back end of his bullpen often, keeping setup man Pedro Strop and closer Hector Rondon fresh. Strop has pitched just 24 2/3 innings this season. Rondon has thrown only 23. Five pitchers in the Nationals’ bullpen have thrown more innings.

In addition, those innings have been more laborious. For instance, Rondon has tossed 298 pitches this season. Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon has thrown 380, despite pitching just 1 2/3 additional innings.

Maddon said making the playoffs last season has made conversations easier when he goes to remove a pitcher. At times, he has pulled Jake Arrieta, and other starters, earlier than he would in the past.

“They all went through it last year,” Maddon said. “They know, yeah, I was kind of tired at the end of the year. You have the conversation with them before the season begins. So, when the moment arises, it’s an easy conversation. We’ve already talked about this. This is exactly what I was talking about in spring training.”

When Maddon looks around the league, many things appear in line with his preseason expectations. The Nationals are good, the Mets are good, the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are looming dangers. Out west, the San Francisco Giants are, of course, in first place during an even year. The Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

“Probably the most thing you didn’t anticipate was us being in position that we are right now,” Maddon said. “We talked about getting off to a good start. We did. So, that’s really permitted us to look like we do right now compared to everybody else. But, it’s a long year. We know that. We have to really take care of the moments right now.

“You knew [the Nationals] were going to be good, the Cardinals are going to continue to get better, Pittsburgh’s going to continue to get better. We haven’t seen the Mets yet. I think they’re pretty much in exactly the same spot they were last year at the same time, so beware.”

Which is why Maddon is so concerned with being the same: Act the same on Monday and Wednesday and no matter who the opponent is. The Cubs’ astounding start has added human nature to their list of opponents. Complacency is a silent devil.

“You don’t take anything or anybody for granted,” Maddon said. “That’s pretty much how we’ve gotten to this point and I really anticipate that will continue because I know that’s the attitude of the coaching staff and if you walk around the clubhouse, there’s several veteran players in there that would not permit it to be any other way. For all those reasons, I like it.”

Hints of the race were sprinkled through the Cubs’ three-day visit to Washington. Baker twice said positive things about the Cubs before mentioning that enough others have puffed them up and he won’t be adding to their pats on the back. Nationals Park filled up with its biggest crowd of the season on Tuesday, then surpassed that on Wednesday.

In the finale, Stephen Drew hit a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the eighth inning for a one-run lead. Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run home run in the ninth to push the Cubs in front. Wilson Ramos answered, and after Chicago pulled ahead in the 12th, Michael A. Taylor and Jayson Werth drove in the runs that made the difference.

In June, it’s the kind of series that brings October thoughts.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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