Five keys for the Cubs in the second half

Despite a rough last few weeks during the first half, the Cubs are still in good shape, beginning the second half with a 53-35 record and a seven game lead for first place in the National League Central division. It’s an ideal spot to be in, but there’s still work to do in order to win their first division title since 2008. Here are five things we need to see for the Cubs to have success for the rest of the regular season:

1. Get the starting rotation back on track. The starting pitching, which was historically good for much of the first half, hasn’t just been bad recently, it’s been downright atrocious. Check out the starters’ ERA by month:

  • April: 2.33
  • May: 2.49
  • June: 2.76
  • July: 8.81

Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jason Hammel have all been awful lately; only Kyle Hendricks has looked decent the past few times through the rotation. In fact, Hendricks currently has the best ERA among the five starters. Hammel is notorious for getting worse as the season goes on, while Arrieta was bound to regress at least a little after being so dominant for so long. But it’s hard to explain why all of them suddenly have been terrible all at once. Hopefully there are no injury problems and they will figure it out soon. Their track record suggests they will.

2. Trade for some bullpen help. We were unsure what the Cubs had in their group of relievers early in the season. Since the starting pitching was so good, Joe Maddon simply didn’t have to use them very much. But lately, they’ve been needed a lot and the bullpen has been exposed as a possible weakness. Like the rotation, the bullpen ERA has gone up every month, though the jump hasn’t been quite as dramatic:

  • April: 2.72
  • May: 3.80
  • June: 3.96
  • July: 5.85

Adam Warren and Justin Grimm have looked pretty bad lately. Hector Rondon, Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and Pedro Strop overall have been solid but have shown some chinks in the armor recently. Carl Edwards, Jr. has been strong since his callup, but this group as a whole just doesn’t have the track record that inspires confidence they will turn it around, at least as much as the starting rotation has. The Cubs are going to need some help from outside the organization here, and while I hate to see the front office give up any of their top prospects, the reality is that it will likely take one or two of their better ones to get any decent relievers.

3. Hit better with runners in scoring position. Even when the team was playing well early in the season, hitting with runners in scoring position was a concern. During the team’s recent slump, the offense’s struggles in this area have been magnified much more. The Cubs overall are second in the majors in runs scored and on-base percentage but rank 22nd of the 30 teams in batting average with runners in scoring position (.245) and 25th in runners in scoring position and two outs (.213). This is just not going to get it done the rest of the way, particularly in the postseason should the Cubs get there.

4. Beat the Cardinals and Pirates. St. Louis will start the second half seven games behind the Cubs, while Pittsburgh is 7.5 games back. The good news for the Cubs is that they have already played the Pirates 12 times (they are 9-3) and only have seven games left with them. However, they still have ten games left with the Cardinals after going 4-5 against them in the first nine. If the Cubs can at least split the rest of their games with these two teams and knock them off the schedule, that will go a long way towards preventing them from getting back into this race.

A lot of fans will be paying attention to the race for the best record in the National League (which means homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs). The Giants are currently #1, with a three game lead over both the Cubs and Nationals. The Cubs have no remaining games with Washington but still have four with San Francisco. While it would be nice to finish with the best record, winning the division is a much bigger priority, since the team doesn’t want to have to play in the Wild Card Game (or miss the playoffs altogether).

5. Block out the media scrutiny. This team carries very high expectations and, of course, the weight of this team’s dubious history. The Cubs lost 15 of 20 before winning the first half finale on Sunday; if they continue to slump to start the second half, the negative energy from the media will become stronger every day. If they get back on track and march towards the playoffs, we’re sure to hear a lot more about goats, black cats, Steve Bartman, and all the other tired story lines us fans have had to deal with for so long. The team did a great job blocking all this out during their run last year. Will that experience help them down the stretch this year? Or will the extra pressure get to them? Let’s hope Maddon can keep the ship steady as we move towards October.

And, of course, health is always a concern. Hopefully Maddon can keep everyone rested and in good shape the rest of the way.

Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.