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Numbers point to improvement for Cubs in first half

Club seeking consistency from young core of Castro, Rizzo and Samardzija

CHICAGO -- The first-half numbers just don't add up for the Cubs.

How can a team rank among the National League leaders in quality starts and extra-base hits and not have a winning record? Probably because the Cubs also lead the NL in blown saves and have struggled with runners in scoring position.

The Cubs headed into the All-Star break with a minus-10 run differential through 93 games, leaving them nine games below .500 at 42-51. Compare that to last year, when the team had a minus-70 run differential and a 38-55 record through 93 games.

"We'll petition the league to change the playoff format so we can go on run differential from now on," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said.

MLB officials can relax. He was joking.

The Cubs' problems have primarily been at the end of games. They're 11-20 in one-run contests.

"We're not able to close games out," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said after Sunday's 10-6 loss to the Cardinals, a phrase he has used often in the first 3 1/2 months. Darwin Barney's three-run homer in the sixth gave the Cubs a 4-3 lead, but they couldn't hold it against high-powered St. Louis.

First-half awards
MVP: Travis Wood The Cubs' sole All-Star, he's also been their MVP for his consistent play. He leads the Major Leagues in quality starts, with 17. Alfonso Soriano made a late push for the first-half honor, hitting nine home runs in his last 15 games.
Cy Young: Wood A double winner, and there's no controversy. Named to his first All-Star team, Wood has come a long way from one year ago, when he couldn't make the Opening Day roster.
Rookie: Welington Castillo He isn't a rookie, but this is his first season as the No. 1 catcher, and he's handled the staff well. Cubs pitchers have ranked among the NL leaders in quality starts and have a respectable ERA.
Top reliever: Kevin Gregg The veteran joined the team in mid-April and took over the closer's role, providing stability to a shaky bullpen. He went 12-for-12 in save opportunities before his first blown save.

The Cubs have taken steps to rectify the 'pen problems. Gone are Carlos Marmol, Shawn Camp and many others. Kyuji Fujikawa, who took over as closer after the first week when Marmol struggled, underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in June.

Only two relievers -- James Russell and Hector Rondon -- have been in the Cubs 'pen from Opening Day until the All-Star break, and Rondon is a Rule 5 pick. Kevin Gregg, released by the Dodgers, is now the closer, and ranks in the top six in save percentage. The team has used a franchise-record 24 pitchers before the break, including 17 relievers.

The rotation has needed only a little realignment. Carlos Villanueva began the year as a starter, switched to the 'pen when Matt Garza returned from a lat injury, and was inserted back in the rotation after Scott Feldman was traded July 2 to the Orioles.

There will likely be more new faces in the second half. Last year, they dealt two-fifths of the rotation -- Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm -- and lost Garza for the final two months because of an elbow injury. You'll hear Garza's name a lot as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, and if he does get moved, the Cubs feel they're ready.

Scott Baker, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, needs three to four more Minor League starts. Jake Arrieta, acquired in the Feldman deal, is starting at Triple-A Iowa. Chris Rusin, who made his Major League debut in August and was 2-3 with a 6.37 ERA last year, has had good season in the Minors.

"There's obviously no question we're much more equipped than last year," Sveum said about the pitching.

The Cubs still need to get the offense in sync, and they showed signs of doing so heading into the break. Alfonso Soriano wrapped up the first half leading the team in home runs (16) and stolen bases (10), the first Cubs player to do that since Sammy Sosa in 1998.

Players to watch in second half
Starlin Castro The shortstop stumbled in June, was benched on June 25, and since then has hit .303 without an error in the field. Castro takes a lot of pride in his batting, and he needs to finish strong.
Anthony Rizzo The Cubs figured they could pre-print their lineup cards with Rizzo in the No. 3 spot, but he scuffled and was dropped to fifth in June. Moved back into the No. 3 spot earlier this month, Rizzo will be counted on for more consistency.
Jeff Samardzija He has ranked among the NL leaders in strikeouts all season, and you never know when he'll reach double-digit K's. This is his first full year as a starter with no innings limit -- the kid gloves are off -- and he'll have a chance in the second half to show that he can handle the work load.

There also have been growing pains. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, both considered part of the core for the Cubs' foundation and recently signed long-term extensions, went through ugly Junes. Rizzo, who received a seven-year, $41 million contract in May, was dropped from third to fifth in the lineup. He is back in the three-hole and is hopefully done tinkering with his swing. What's tough to remember is that Rizzo, who turns 24 in August, is playing his first full big league season. After a .167 June, Castro hit an encouraging .308 in July heading into the break and has also cleaned up his defense.

"The way we're playing, there are still some guys, including myself, who can play better," Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija said. "That's the exciting thing about it is that with Castro coming around, Rizzo starting to swing the bat well, Edwin [Jackson] is throwing the heck out of the ball and I can get better, too. There are spots we can improve, which is pretty cool and exciting.

"There's definitely a lot of resiliency in this clubhouse," Samardzija said. "We stay together as a team. Guys come, guys go, and we integrate them really well."

The Cubs are low on outfielders. David DeJesus, sidelined since June 14 with a sprained right shoulder, could return shortly after the All-Star break. Ryan Sweeney was batting .295 before he fractured his ribs crashing into the wall in Oakland. Brian Bogusevic reaggravated his left hamstring on Sunday, and his status is doubtful.

There are games, like Saturday's 6-4 win over the Cardinals, when everything clicks. There was a playoff-type buzz at Wrigley Field.

"We've turned the corner, and we're playing great baseball right now," Garza said. "We're coming up with some clutch hits and making great plays in tough situations, and you can see growth -- and it's awesome."

But there have been more games like Sunday, which marked the 27th time in their 51 losses that the Cubs had the lead.

The NL Central has been tough. The Cubs went 13-7 in Interleague Play, but they are just 15-28 in the division. It'll be nearly impossible to catch the Cardinals, the Pirates or the Reds. Finishing .500 isn't out of the question, and it would be a huge improvement after losing 101 games last year.

"It's a huge hole, but the starting pitching always gives you a chance," Sveum said. "Even though we're playing well, there has to be that streak of wins to climb back into something, especially when you have three teams, four teams to climb over. It takes a 10-game winning streak to say, 'OK, now we've got a chance.'"

Look for that in the second half.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.
Read More: Chicago Cubs, Starlin Castro, Jeff Samardzija, Anthony Rizzo