Exactly a month ago, I wrote about a lagging, injured and unfocused Cubs team badly in need of an All-Star break. The fact that a mid-season game featuring baseball’s best and brightest saw a Cub-less starting National League lineup take the field – that said it all. The 2016 World Series Champs and a roster of MVPs, Cy Young winners, aces and offensive producers limped frustratingly – and were tough to watch.
How about 9-2 since July 11? Sounds a lot better, doesn’t it? Looks and feels different too. Our cross-town rivals, The White Sox, were kind enough to part with starting pitcher Jose Quintana on July 13, and Q has quickly proven a valuable addition to the Cubbies’ bruised staff of hurlers. His July 16 debut at Camden Yards was verifiably historic, with Quintana fanning 12 batters over seven innings – without allowing a run. Holy Cow! A commanding announcement that the Epstein administration’s eye for the right talent at the right time remains unclouded.
The batting averages clearly have room for growth but Kris Bryant is leading the pack at a respectable .278 (at the time of publication). Wilson Contreras is the best catcher in baseball and in the middle of a red-hot hitting streak. Fan favorite Kyle Schwarber is back from a stint in the minors and crawling from the bottom. And the outfield is much better with a healthy Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.
Yes indeed Wrigleyville Nation. Things are looking up. The Cubs remain a half-game behind the first place Milwaukee Brewers, but have widened the gap considerably between themselves and the rest of the NL Central. Can we all just take a moment to savor a fourth-place Cardinals club (with all-due love to Dexter Fowler)?
As I mentioned in a Facebook post yesterday, I’m always elated to #FlyTheW. I’m certainly not looking for trouble. That said, and despite all the winning, there’s a few…curious variables at play. Some strange things are afoot with some of our key players that could impact current momentum. As wizened, sober residents of Wrigleyville Nation, we need to keep our eyes on the following:
Anemic Starting Pitching: John Lackey hit four batters, including three in one inning, during yesterday’s contest with the White Sox. We’re lucky there’s wasn’t a fight, but that’s probably because it’s pretty clear no one would intentionally throw so poorly. Loading up the bags with a slim 4-2 lead is a little risky even for the famously hot-tempered Lackey.
Aside from Quintana, this is the story of the Cubs starting rotation in 2017. Unpredictable, wounded and largely ineffective. Kyle Hendricks is returning from a two-month stint on the DL. The lowest ERA belongs to John Lester at 3.95, and Jake Arrieta is our top winner with nine in the plus column. This is not the stuff of playoff glory.
What’s Up with Bryant?: What does a young phenom who’s won the Minor League Player of the Year, MLB National League Rookie of the Year and 2016 NL Most Valuable Player Awards – in rapid succession – do next? How about injure his ankle tripping over third base, wound his hand after an awkward slide into the same bag, and get tossed out of a game? The bar is admittedly high for the mild-mannered megastar but it feels like something is eating at Bryant this season, and his play has suffered. He deserves space and patience to figure out what it is. But it would be nice if that happened soon.
The Bullpen: The first half of the 2017 season was punctuated by sports headlines in this vein: How Bad Has the Cubs Bullpen Been, Really?, Bullpen Struggles Again, Diagnosing the Bullpen Woes on the North Side.
The situation has improved somewhat, and closer Wade Davis was the lone Cubbie representative at this year’s All-Star game. But the Carl Edwards, Jr., Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm “massacre” on July 21? Never forget.
There’s a lot of baseball left to play and every reason for optimism. We are the defending World Series Champs with the core team mostly intact. But it’s been a strange season, oftentimes more difficult than it should be. Let’s hope yesterday’s Lackey bean fest/Bryant ejection was the last “What the..?” for awhile.