Cubs playing spoilers with a purpose

CHICAGO -- The pennant race has begun.

Not so much for the Chicago Cubs, but for almost every opponent they’ll face in the final weeks of the season. Fourteen series remain in 2014 and all but one –-- against the New York Mets on the road this weekend -- will have playoff implications for the Cubs' opponent. It all started Monday with the opening of a four-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers.

“We’re going to be playing a very tough schedule for the next 6½ weeks or so,” manager Rick Renteria said before Monday’s game. “Good. These young men are getting a taste of being in the big leagues, playing against a lot of clubs that are competing for the postseason. We hope that we are relevant in that process in terms of how we go out and play the game.”

“Being relevant” would mean pulling off a few upsets and maybe winning more than losing. The Cubs have shown some signs of life since the early days after trading starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. They’re 10-9 in their past 19 games. It’s nothing to write home about, but being competitive now -- while learning some things along the way -- can only help going into next season.

“We’re not thrust into the pennant race other than by osmosis, kind of, playing these other clubs,” Renteria said. “It’s a good thing. [The Cubs players] can see what other clubs are doing that make them good. How do they run the bases? How do they play defense? How do they pitch? Hopefully, we’ll be able to rise to the occasion and do what we need to to compete against them and win some ballgames.”

It’s good to hear Renteria break from the normal “every game has the same meaning” rhetoric. Playing in some intense, playoff-style games has a different feel than the kind the Cubs will undoubtedly experience this weekend against the Mets. It should bring out the best in everyone.

“We want that winning mentality,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s starting to come more. Everyone is just coming together. We’re far out [of the playoff chase], but you want that good feeling.”

As with any leftover veteran, Rizzo wasn’t loving the idea of moving Samardzija and Hammel, but the further the Cubs get from that trade, the more perspective they can find. There’s a new nucleus growing within the clubhouse, and everyone around the team can feel it. Now is the time to learn how to play together.

“The reality is any club that plays well together at any given time can put together a good run,” Renteria said. “These young men are learning the feel of the big leagues.”

The end result might not matter all that much months down the line -- time will tell what carries over -- but Renteria wants his team to have that winning feeling as much as possible.

“It matters to the players,” he said. “You build confidence. At that point, guys don’t want to stop playing. I’ve been in a lot of different situations -- when you’re playing well you want to keep it going.”