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Cubs playoff update: Justin Steele starts the last week of the wild card race

Ryan Avatar
September 26, 2023

Here it is, the final week of the regular season for the Cubs. If they can finish the year strong, they may very well find themselves playing beyond Sunday. No need to think about what’s going on with the other playoff contenders; just take care of your own business over these last six games.

Not that that’ll be easy. They’ve got series on the road against two different division winners on the schedule. One doesn’t have the top seed in the National League locked up yet, and the other is a major NL Central rival. So, don’t expect either team to look to coast to the end of their seasons.

But again, the Cubs control their destiny. If they can keep winning ballgames, they’ll earn themselves a spot in the postseason.

Buckle up. This will be an exciting (and stressful) week on the North Side.

Here is CHGO’s daily update on the Cubs’ postseason hopes and where things stand with the rest of the playoff contenders.

Play of the Day

This isn’t the Cubs, nor is it just one play, but this game in the Bronx had major implication on the NL Wild Card race.

The Yankees, already eliminated from the postseason, ran out a lineup with six players each owning a sub-.700 OPS against a Diamondbacks club desperately needing to stack wins to secure a playoff spot. And as expected, most of those players led a three-run bottom of the eighth that earned New York a comeback victory over Arizona.

Quote of the Day

“When you start dwindling down and you’re in a race and there’s a bunch of teams around you, that’s the exciting part. We have an opportunity that we’d all sign up for to start spring training. We’ve got nine games left, and we’re in the hunt for the playoffs. We’re right there. We would all sign up for that. This is a really positive moment that feels probably a little bit negative to everybody, because of how we’ve gone about the last 10-15 days, but we’re still in the position to have a chance to get in the playoffs. We’d all sign up for that. So, this is a good thing. We’re in a good spot to make the playoffs. We’ve just got to go out and do it” — David Ross, before the start of the Rockies series, on the opportunity the Cubs have in front of them.


With both the Brewers and Cubs off Monday, Milwaukee’s lead in the NL Central remained at six games. Still, there’s virtually no way for the Cubs to catch them in the standings. There are six games left on both teams’ schedules — with three between the teams to end the season — but the magic number is down to 1. Another Brewers victory or another Cubs loss will end the division race. So, earning a wild card bid is really their only shot at the playoffs.

First, a reminder that there’s no more Game 163. Of the seven teams with any chance at a wild card spot, the Cubs own the tiebreaker (head-to-head record) over only the Giants and Padres, while they’d lose it to the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Marlins and Reds.

Here’s how each of those seven teams fared Monday:

  • Cubs: Off
  • Phillies: Off
  • Diamondbacks: Lost to the Yankees
  • Marlins: Off
  • Reds: Off
  • Giants: Beat the Padres
  • Padres: Lost to the Giants

Arizona’s loss in the Bronx was a massive outcome for the Cubs, as it moved them into a tie for the second NL Wild Card spot (though, again, the Cubs would lose the tiebreaker and remain in that last spot). Entering Tuesday, the Cubs are five games back of Philadelphia and a full game ahead of Miami. Cincinnati, San Francisco and San Diego are all still multiple games back in the race.

With that, the Cubs still have control of their postseason fate. It’s up to them to stack up wins and keep the teams below them at bay.


The Cubs had an off day Monday, their last before the final stretch of the season. They now begin a three-game series in Atlanta before ending the year with three in Milwaukee this weekend.

Here are the remaining schedules for all seven teams still mathematically in the wild card hunt:

  • Phillies: vs. PIT (3), @ NYM (3)
  • Diamondbacks: @ CWS (3), vs. HOU (3)
  • Marlins: @ NYM (3), @ PIT (3)
  • Reds: @ CLE (2), @ STL (3)
  • Giants: vs. SD (2), vs. LAD (3)
  • Padres: @ SF (2), @ CWS (3)


According to FanGraphs’ playoff projections, the Cubs’ odds at clinching a wild card spot rose to 57.9 percent entering Tuesday thanks to Arizona’s loss. Among the seven teams in the race, the Phillies (100 percent) and Diamondbacks (78.2 percent) remain ahead of the Cubs. The North Siders themselves are still ahead of the Marlins (55.4 percent) with the Reds (8.4 percent) hanging in there, while the Giants are down to 0.1 percent and the Padres — who aren’t yet officially eliminated — are at 0.0 percent.

Today’s pitching matchup

Justin Steele’s (16-5, 3.00 ERA) last two starts just haven’t gone the way he or the Cubs needed them to go.

They haven’t been completely “bad” start (at least not in the mind of the Cubs’ skipper). On Sept. 15, Steele’s outing in Arizona was undone on two bad pitches that resulted two three-run homers. Then on Wednesday, a Pirates lineup that struck out six times in the first three innings ended up BABIPing Steele (.727 BABIP) to another poor box score with six straight singles to start the fourth that knocked him out of the game early.

The box scores don’t tell the entire story, but what ultimately matters right now are wins. And with two losses in his last starts after not taking a loss for nearly two months prior, Steele wasn’t able to give the Cubs what they needed.

Of course, this is still the guy who had himself deep in the NL Cy Young conversation less than two weeks ago. He beat the vaunted Braves lineup in early August. Most of his numbers still rank near the top among the 21 qualified NL starters. Every game the Cubs have moving forward should be considered “the biggest game of the year,” so there’s no one they should want on the bump more to start off the final week than their ace.

Atlanta will counter with Bryce Elder (12-4, 3.63 ERA). Elder has the eighth best ERA (3.63) among 21 qualified NL starters, but he’s further down the list in both strikeout rate (17.7 percent, 18th) and walk rate (8.3 percent, 14th). It’s not the toughest matchup they could get from that rotation — the Braves also lost Max Fried and Charlie Morton to finger injuries in the last few days — but the Cubs’ batters will need to be productive considering the dangerous lineup they’ll be opposing.

Tweet of the Day

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