By Randy Richardson
The 2016 MLB baseball season is still young, only about a fifth of the way through, but at a stage where we are starting to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
Two of the season’s most compelling story lines involve two teams that many preseason prognosticators had matched up to meet in the World Series: the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. There was good reason to expect big things of the two young teams. In 2015, the Astros earned their first trip to the postseason since 2005, defeating the Yankees in the Wild Card Game before losing to the Royals in the Division Series. The Cubs took their first postseason appearance since 2008 all the way to the NLCS.
Yet the two teams fortunes have gone in opposite directions in 2016.
Even after dropping a double-header to the lowly Padres on Wednesday, the Cubs, at 25-8, maintain baseball’s best record and a 7-game lead over the Pirates.
Meanwhile, the Astros languish near the bottom of the AL West at 14-21, trailing the Seattle Mariners by 7.5 games. It’s a stunning fall for a team projected to be battling for the championship.
Can the Astros still right the ship? Sure, it’s a long season. But they’ve dug themselves an awfully big hole.
The Cubs, on the other hand, are right where they want to be. Unlike the Astros, the brash young Cubs haven’t shrunk under the weight of expectations. After a strong offseason that saw the Cubs shake up the baseball world by bringing back center fielder Dexter Fowler but also add three other top free agents (right fielder Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist and pitcher John Lackey), expectations were undeniably high for the upstart Cubs. Against all odds, the team that boldly wore “Embrace the Target” T-shirts in training camp, have thus far managed to surpass expectations.
The Cubs have literally shot out of the gate and don’t seem like they ever intend to look back. They won eight out of nine to start the season. They went to their key divisional rivals’ ballparks and two out of three from the Cardinals and swept a three-game series from the Pirates, and then swept a four-game series against the Nationals, a team that had the second-best record in the NL coming into that series. Nothing seems to slow them.
Credit the Cubs’ pitching as a big reason for their early-season success. Their team ERA of 2.67 is the lowest in all of baseball, followed by the Mets at 2.78 and Nationals at 2.88. In contrast, the Astros’ team ERA of 4.31 ranks in the bottom half, tied with the Pirates at No. 20.
Before faltering against the Padres, the Cubs’ offense was also on a roll. Even after being shutout in the second-game of Wednesday’s double-header, the Cubs are tied with Red Sox for the most runs scored at 196. The Astros sit in the middle of the pack, at No. 15, with 144 runs scored.
There’s still a lot of baseball to be played. The Astros could still turn things around and be contenders. The Cubs could still falter down the stretch. History tells us this. For the old die-hards 1969 is a painful reminder of just how quickly fortunes can turn. That of course was the season that started much like this one as the Cubs won 11 of their first 12 games but then saw them collapse at the end. A nine-game divisional lead in August quickly vanished and the Cubs finished the season eight games behind the New York Mets, making the 1969 Cubs “the most celebrated second-place team in baseball history.”
Based on early-season results, the 2016 incarnation of the Cubs seems to be more resilient – stronger and deeper – than its 1969 counterpart. Not even the early season-ending injury to young slugger Kyle Schwarber slowed them in their tracks. Let’s hope that they make it all the way to end without looking back.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.