Down to the Wire: The Cubs Make a Run for the Playoffs, By Robert “B.C.” Carlson

“Buckle up, hold on to your Cubs caps, and watch as the two most exciting weeks of the 2017 season are about to unfold.”

Early spark plug, Wilson Contreras.

As I noted in my last piece for this hallowed blog, at this year’s All-Star break, the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs were just about as average an MLB team as they could be. Their record was 43-45 and their hitting and pitching were just about in the middle of the MLB rankings. In their final game before the break, they were blown out 14-3 by the Pirates. Only one Cub – the almost-unstoppable closer Wade Davis – made the All-Star roster. Some Cubs fans had taken to trashing the team on social media; others were despondent.

However, the three-day physical and mental rest that comes with the All-Star break proved to be just what the Cubs needed. They came roaring back into first place in the division, winning thirteen of their first sixteen games. They’ve scored the most runs in the Majors and have the best run differential in the NL in the second half.

The early spark plug was catcher Willson Contreras, who, only one year into his Major League career, batted .321 with seven home runs and 19 RBIs in July; he was named the NL Player of the Week for the first week in August after hitting a blistering .455 (10-for-22) with five home runs, 13 RBIs and a 1.660 on-base+slugging percentage (OPS) in six games. Contreras was subsequently sidelined for nearly a month by a hamstring injury, but his contributions to the Cubs second-half success are undeniable: his OPS is 302 percentage points (1.085 vs. .783) higher in the second half than it was before the break.

The Chicago Cubs introduce new pitcher, Jon Lester, at a press conference held at Spiaggia Restaurant in Chicago on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

After a slow start at the beginning of the season, first baseman Anthony Rizzo has proven to be one of the most consistent hitters in baseball. For the fourth consecutive season, he has hit over 30 home runs, and is likely to have career highs in home runs and on-base percentage this year. And although reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant is way short of his 2016 home run total (27 vs. 39), he also overcame a subpar first half (he batted only .232 in June); he’s hitting .324 since the All Star break. Poker-faced, switch-hitting rookie Ian Happ has also helped boost the Cubs run production; after joining the team in mid-May, he broke Kyle Schwarber’s club record of fewest at-bats to reach 20 home runs. In fact, for the first time in franchise history, the Cubs have six players with more than 20 home runs in one season; Rizzo, at age 28, is the oldest of those players. Infielder Javier Báez has also been a big factor for the team; he spent the first half chasing pitches outside the strike zone, but is hitting .290 with 12 home runs in the second half. Additionally, he has become known as “El Mago” (“The Magician”) in the field for his spectacular defense, and has done an outstanding job filling in for injured shortstop Addison Russell (who is expected back in the lineup by September 17).

The Cubs pitching has improved, too, though it’s still not as dominant as it was last year. The 2016 Cy Young runner-up, Jon Lester, has an ERA of 4.30, while John Lackey’s (whose emotions got him ejected from the Cubs’ September 15 win against the Cardinals) is 4.62. The big story, though, has been former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, who has posted a mind-boggling 1.98 ERA in the second half. Arrieta has missed a couple turns in the rotation since suffering a hamstring strain September 5, but is expected back in time for the crucial September 21-24 series against the Brewers (more on that below). Last year’s MLB ERA leader, Kyle Hendricks, has also had a strong second half, with an ERA of 2.58 since the All-Star break. The acquisition of starter José Quintana from the White Sox has contributed to half a dozen wins, while sometimes-starter/sometimes-reliever Mike Montgomery has also played a key role.

Now you want to know: Will the Cubs repeat as division champs, league champs, World Series champs? My answer is that the Cubs have a good chance, but are not going to be the odds-makers’ favorites. After Chicago took a series against the Braves at the beginning of the month, it looked like a division championship was almost a foregone conclusion. Then they were clobbered by the second-place Brewers, dropping three straight at Wrigley Field in which they were outplayed and outscored 20 runs to 3. As of this writing, the Cubs have fourteen games left in the regular season, and ten of those are against the teams that are nipping at their heels, the despised Cardinals and the upstart Brewers. Eight of those ten will be played on the rivals’ home fields.

While the big story lately has been the Cleveland Indians’ 22-game winning streak, one thing is for certain: The NL Central Division has the most exciting race in baseball this year (just as it did in 2015). Whoever wins it will have to actually earn it and not rely on other teams to help them. I am optimistic that the Cubs can do it. They have the deepest bench in the Majors, with a number of multi-position players who can be platooned to take advantage of their strengths in different situations and against different pitchers. They have a fearsome offensive lineup, making it very hard for opponents to pitch around any one batter. They have some of the best defense players in the MLB. And they have fiery competitors on the mound. Lester and Lackey have been known to kick it up a notch when a championship is on the line; Arietta seems to have regained his Cy Young form; Hendricks is pitching like the second coming of Greg Maddux; and Davis is 29 for 29 in save opportunities. Even when falling behind in the early innings, the Cubs have shown resolve and resiliency, notching an astounding 41 comeback victories in the season so far.

Although a lot of bettors will be placing their money on the Dodgers or the Indians, I would remind our readers that anything can happen in the playoffs. Last year notwithstanding, it has been rare in recent seasons for the team with the best record in the regular season to win the World Series. The Cubs have as good a chance as anybody.

So buckle up, hold on to your Cubs caps, and watch as the two most exciting weeks of the 2017 season are about to unfold. Oh, and if the North Siders win the division, they will almost certainly face the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. As a resident of northern Virginia, that thought has my heart a-pumpin’.

Go Cubs!

Robert “B.C.” Carlson

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