By Bruce Levine--
CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Cubs are serving notice that they are serious about being a contending team in 2015.
Back in January, first baseman Anthony Rizzo was the first to say the Cubs would win the National League Central division title. Now after starting the season 11-7 after a 4-0 blanking of Pittsburgh on Monday night at Wrigley Field, this young Chicago team with some important veterans sprinkled in is putting its bats and gloves where its mouths are.
"This has been huge," Rizzo said. "We preached since spring training we have to survive April. We can't put ourselves in a hole like we did in years past. We are doing a good job every day of coming to the park with a lot of energy, having fun and really playing with a purpose."
An old Ozzie Guillen saying while he was manager of the White Sox was "winning is fun and fun is winning." I asked Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel, after he won his second game of the season Monday by throwing eight shutout innings, if this team is for real under first-year manager Joe Maddon.
"We have been doing that since January," Hammel said in reference to Rizzo's prediction and the confidence. "We know what we have in this clubhouse. We're excited. It all starts with (Joe) -- he has given us a feel. He came in, made us know we were going to have a good time by winning. It wasn't the drill instructor type or having us looking-over-our-shoulder-mom-or-dad thing. It's about letting us go out and be ourselves and go play baseball."
Rizzo and Kris Bryant did the heavy lifting with two RBIs each in Monday's victory. The win put Chicago just a game behind St. Louis for the division lead.
Fun and hard work have indeed gone hand and hand since the arrival of Maddon on the scene.
"We really insist on quite a celebration," Maddon said about his team's disco light show after every win. "I come from the land of big celebrations after wins. I don't want that ever to get old. I want them to look forward to that. The more raucous, the better."
The Cubs are off to their best start since since 2008, when they started 17-10 in March and April.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.
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