Story by Kyle Graham
Going into the All-Star break, the Chicago Cubs were 5 1/2 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers and were tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for second position in the National League Central division. Their season record was at a pedestrian 43-45 and not many things were going right for the ball club.
Fast forward to two and a half weeks later and the Cubs are winning their second game out of three in its series and adding to their first-place division lead, 2.5 games ahead of the Brewers. As of July 31, the Cubs have won 13 of 16 games since the All-Star break and are now on pace to a 90-plus win season.
What has changed?
The biggest and most obvious improvement comes from their starting pitching. In the 16 games since the break, they have posted a 2.34 ERA (27 ER, 96 IP) and are beginning to look like the starting rotation that was the best in the MLB last year (statistically). The blockbuster trade for José Quintana and the return of 2016 Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks from the disabled list set the tone early for the squad and they hope to continue this trend as we head into the final months of the season.
Not only is the pitching on fire, but the bats are on fire too as Kris Bryant seems to be back on track and with Wilson Contreras evolving into one of the best catchers in the MLB. How does this make the Cubs title contenders again? Over the past three years, the Cubs have been one of the best teams in baseball after the All-Star break under manager, Joe Maddon.
This isn’t just mere coincidence as Maddon’s philosophy of resting starting pitchers early in the season, to be better prepared for a postseason push, is working to a tee again and it may just continue with the Cubs weak schedule coming up.
Excluding its tough upcoming home stand against the Diamondbacks and Nationals, their next nine opponents have records under .500. On top of that, on the last day of the trade deadline, the Cubs have acquired catcher/first baseman Alex Avila and LHP Justin Wilson from the Detroit Tigers which filled its two most glaring needs to solidify them as a contender.
After the unfortunate situation with Miguel Montero, a backup catcher became a crucial need and Avila was the best catcher on the market. Although he has been in a slump lately, Avila is still slashing a solid .274/11 HRS/32 RBI’s and will be looked upon to make an immediate impact. As with Justin Wilson, he joins an already talented bullpen that is second in the NL in ERA (3.34).
This team was largely predicted to win the World Series again coming into this season, so it should not be a surprise that they’re title contenders again, but will it be enough to beat the Dodgers or the Astros?
It will if the Astros and Dodgers pitching continues to decline and if Clayton Kershaw can’t stay healthy, because when it comes to the postseason, it doesn’t matter how great your record is -just ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners. What matters is how hot your team is in the latter stages of the regular season, and the Cubs are one of the few teams that are firing on all cylinders right now.