Quantifying Hope: You Have to Walk Off Before You Can Go on a Run

The Cubs can’t hit mediocre pitching.

That’s my new ill-informed blanket knock on the team with the best record in baseball. For a while there, the complaints were that they couldn’t hit good pitching, couldn’t win close games, and couldn’t come from behind. But both the Mariners and the Marlins are good teams and the Cubs were able to capture close-come-from-behind wins against both in the last week. But in those six games, the guys who seemed to give them the most trouble were Wade Miley and Tom Koehler. Go figure.

If I’m facing the Cubs in the playoffs, I’m just reversing my rotation and icing the champagne. Listen, I could go on pounding this bad narrative into the ground, but I’d prefer to move on to the idea that was promised in the headline. And since I’ve already touched on it in the last few days, I’m going to keep this brief. After Sunday’s crazy comeback, I wrote that a game like that could spur the team to even bigger things in the second half.

Wednesday’s comeback was more of the same and displayed the sort of unadulterated fun and excitement we experienced last year. When the 2015 season opened, we didn’t really know what to expect from the Cubs. I don’t think even the most starry-eyed among us would have predicted 97 wins, 13 of which came in the last at-bat of the game. Every night was a chance to see something you’d never seen before.

With the bar raised so high this season, any sense of childlike wonder was cast aside. This team needs to win, dammit, and they need to do so all the time. Prior to Sunday’s wild contest, the Cubs had only walked off once this season. Javy Baez’s homer on Mother’s Day was incredible, but it was an island. Incidentally, I was unable to watch that game because I myself was on an island.

Some will be skeptical, rightfully so, about the greater importance of any one game in such a long season. Does a dramatic win really have an impact on a team that should rack up 90-some more ho-hum victories? I say yes. The Cubs looked like a juggernaut early in the season as they steamrolled opponents and set a pace for the most dominant team in history, at least in terms of scoring margin.

After coming back to earth over the last month and change, they were starting to look like just another really good baseball team. The Cubs were 9-6 in the second half prior to the series finale with the Mariners, so a loss wouldn’t have done them in. But with walk-off wins bookending a modest four-game streak, they’re at 13-6 since the break and have pushed their lead in the Central to 9.5 games. That’s the widest margin in any division, in case you were wondering.

The Cubs’ +171 run differential is easily the largest in the game, with only the Nationals (+136) joining them in the Century Club. As of Friday morning, the Blue Jays (+86) were a distant third. So what does this all mean in the grand scheme? Well, the Cubs have crept back to 99.9% playoff odds according to FanGraphs and are actually at 100% on Baseball Prospectus, though I’m skeptical of a sure thing until the magic number has been met. Both sites have them at 19.1% World Series win odds, well ahead of the Nats (13.6%).

The walk-offs didn’t make the Cubs the best team in baseball, but I remain convinced that wins like those we watched or listened to Sunday and Wednesday are capable of galvanizing teams and giving them that much more confidence and momentum moving forward. The vibe around the ballpark is better, the clubhouse party room gets a little more raucous, everything is amplified.

I was amazed by how crowded and lively things were for a mid-week day game against the Marlins. Some may have been there as a last hurrah before school starts back up, others might have wanted to see Ichiro in his quest for 3,000 MLB hits. Whatever the case, Wrigley was bursting at the seams. You may not buy into the idea of momentum or that the crowd can impact the game, but I look at that see of blue and then I look to that 37-17 home record and I can’t deny it.

The Cubs have built their roster in such a way that they can win in any form or fashion, be it a complete-game shutout from their fifth starter, a reliever dominating on both ends of a Waxahachie Swap, perfect defensive plays, or scoring tying and winning runs on wild pitches. But this team isn’t getting lucky, it’s mass-producing its own proprietary mix of magic and good fortune.

That isn’t really quantifiable, though it’s something you know to be true because you can see it happening as you watch the games. Even listening to Pat Hughes’ descriptions of what’s unfolding, you get a sense of something bigger bubbling just below the surface. Or, at least I do.

What do you think, dear reader, is there such a thing as a turning point game? Does magic inhabit the halls of Wrigley Field, or is it all in my head?

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