Talk about a roller coaster. The Chicago Cubs just completed an epic first half of baseball highlighted by a 25-6 start and a 6-15 finish. Heart attacks are supposed to come in the playoffs, not the first 88 games. But these are the Cubs, and nothing — absolutely nothing — will ever be as easy as it looks or seems.
The finish was as dramatically bad as the start was good, but the first-half finale on Sunday, a 6-5 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, might be the difference-maker.
“We’re happy with where we’re at,” All-Star Anthony Rizzo said with a sigh of relief after the game. “As much as there was a must-win game, it was today.”
The Cubs are seven games in front of the St. Louis Cardinals and 7½ in front of the Pirates. A two-game swing on Sunday feels as huge as being only 5½ games ahead of Pittsburgh would have felt devastating. But what looked to be another bad loss turned into a victory as the bullpen — surprise, surprise — came through, as did Kris Bryant with a clutch eighth-inning RBI single.
“The lead [in the division] could have swung big-time,” Bryant said. “It’s nice to go into the All-Star break with less stress, but I think if you told us at the beginning of the year we would be in this position, any of us would take it.”
That was the theme throughout the locker room after the Cubs won their 53rd game of the season. The final month wasn’t pretty, but at least their lead in the division is still safe.
“We’ve done it with less than our normal group, and I do believe fatigue entered into the equation,” manager Joe Maddon said. “What we just went through right now is really going to be beneficial to us in the second half.”
Is that coachspeak? We’ll find out in the coming months, but here are the facts: The Cubs were sailing along fine until injuries hit, a susceptible bullpen imploded, and the longest stretch of games without a break in over a decade happened. Included was a nine-game road trip and 11 more heading into July. Each part of the Cubs’ play took a hit. The strength of the team — the starting staff — was the last to go, and boy did it go. They haven’t had one quality start yet this month — let alone one of those gems we had become used to seeing. And, frankly, if Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester can’t find it again, let’s all go watch Dwyane Wade play for the Bulls.
“We need to reset,” Maddon said. “We need to get guys rested up. … This last week really put us in a fatigue situation.”
He’s referencing the three day games at Wrigley Field, followed by their rain-delayed, extra-inning affair Thursday night against the Atlanta Braves. Then they landed in Pittsburgh at 5:30 a.m. Friday. It caught up with them. Twenty-four games in 24 days.
“We’re human beings,” Ben Zobrist said. “Whatever the fans feel, we’re feeling the same thing. When they’re screaming at us, that’s how we feel inside, but we have to keep that to ourselves and keep playing.”
Zobrist, Jason Hammel and Maddon have been there before. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays lost the last seven games before the All-Star break but went on to play in the World Series. Zobrist recalls their first game back from the break.
“We were down 1-0 to A.J. Burnett,” he said. “We scored two runs late, and that whole losing streak was forgotten.
“There is so much time left. You can’t panic, and you have to minimize the negative feelings.”
The Cubs are always going to be susceptible to rougher stretches due to varying start times and a division that might lead the league in rain delays and cancellations every year. That’s not to say they can’t be great, but sometimes things have to fall perfectly into place — like starting the season on the West Coast after spending six weeks in Arizona. That worked out. Things haven’t worked so well over the past three or four weeks, but there’s a good chance they will again.
The one caveat is that seven Cubs All-Stars won’t get real rest over the break, so Maddon will have to keep an eye on them as the second half begins. There’s a reason Lester and Arrieta won’t pitch next weekend. You can bet young Addison Russell will get plenty of days off. The Cubs also have a friendlier schedule, at least until mid-August when they head west again. Do we know for sure their troubles are behind them? Of course not. That’s the beauty and mystery of the game. Either the sky-is-falling crowd will be right, and the team is in for an epic collapse, or this is just a blip like the 2008 Rays had.
“To be a successful, professional athlete you have to have excellent short-term memory,” Zobrist said. “If you think that [negative] way on the field you have to stop those thoughts and move on to how am I going to do better?”
The win was so exhilarating Sunday that Bryant actually said he wished the All-Star break wasn’t coming so they could keep the momentum going. He’s young and enthusiastic, so you’ll have to forgive him. Never did a team need a break so badly. When the Cubs get back, they can embrace the target once again.
“We’re going into the break with our heads up,” Rizzo said. “We can relax a little bit. … We got through our rough schedule there. We like where we are.”