Of all the highs for the Cubs this season, President Theo Epstein and manager Joe Maddon agreed a four-game sweep of the defending World Series champion Giants on Aug. 6-9 represented the signature turning point.
"We were down 2 1/2 games (in the wild-card race) going into that series," Epstein said Saturday. "We really started to play well against good teams. That's been a hallmark the last couple months."
Starting with the four-game sweep, the Cubs embarked on a nine-game winning streak and a 14-3 run. The sweep of the Giants included three wins of two runs or fewer, and no Giants starter lasted more than five innings.
"We respect what they've done," Maddon said. "They know how to win, all that stuff. I thought that series there proved to me and us we can do this.''
Hammel hammered: The search for a third starter in the playoffs could go down to the wire after Jason Hammel was pulled after allowing five consecutive hits to start the fifth inning Saturday.
Hammel, who had allowed only two hits through the first four innings, appeared miffed as he took a few steps behind the mound and then handed the ball to Maddon before Maddon reached the top of the mound.
"It was going along well, and it happened so quickly I was kind of surprised," Maddon said of Hammel's mercurial outing. Hammel has a 5.52 ERA in the second half.
Priority time: Maddon acknowledged clinching a playoff berth with eight games left will allow the Cubs to prepare for the wild-card game after falling 51/2 games behind the Pirates for home-field advantage.
"My biggest thing would be keeping pitchers fresh, as much as anything," Maddon said.
Relievers Pedro Strop (73) and Hector Rondon (69) have set career highs in appearances, and Justin Grimm has pitched in 60 games despite missing the season's first month.
"Hitters don't want too much time off," Maddon said.
But first baseman Anthony Rizzo has played in all but one of the Cubs' 154 games and is in a 1-for-16 slump.
Extra innings: Kris Bryant is batting .447 in his last 10 games, and his 62 extra-base hits are a franchise rookie record. ... The Pirates are a major-league-best 82-44 since May 9.