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Cubs optimistic as first half comes to close

Club enters All-Star break atop National League Central despite loss
@MLBastian
July 7, 2019

CHICAGO -- Anthony Rizzo was asked why, given the backdrop of all the inconsistencies on display for the Cubs so far this season, he felt things would be better in the second half. The veteran first baseman peered over the heads of the reporters circling him on Sunday morning, scanning

CHICAGO -- Anthony Rizzo was asked why, given the backdrop of all the inconsistencies on display for the Cubs so far this season, he felt things would be better in the second half. The veteran first baseman peered over the heads of the reporters circling him on Sunday morning, scanning the names above the lockers in the visitors' clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field.

"Kris Bryant. Jason Heyward," said Rizzo, whose eyes continued to make their way down the row of stalls. "Jon Lester. Cole Hamels. Kyle Schwarber. Craig Kimbrel. The whole 25-man roster. Good Guys. Javier Báez. It speaks for itself."

There is no denying the talent that is packed into the clubhouse for the Cubs, but the production to date has not matched the caliber of the names. That was true again on Sunday, when the North Siders wrapped up their first half with a 3-1 loss to the White Sox, giving the Cubs a 47-43 ledger as the season reaches its annual intermission.

Box score

In the first-half finale, Eloy Jimenez launched a two-run homer off Kyle Hendricks and Jose Abreu belted a solo shot off Brad Brach. That was sufficient in sending the Cubs to their 16th loss in 26 games dating back to June 10 and gave the club an 18-27 record on the road this season. The crosstown rivals split the two-game set, leaving the Cubs without a series win since their sweep of St. Louis on June 7-9.

Here is the catch: The Cubs enter the break atop the National League Central.

While the Cubs have been six games under .500 over the past three-plus weeks, they have actually gained a half-game in the division standings. That is because the Brewers have gone 9-16 over that same period of time. Meanwhile, the Pirates (14-11), Cardinals (13-12) and Reds (12-11) have posted winning records dating back to June 10, creating a situation where only 4 1/2 games separate all five NL Central teams.

"Of course you've got to feel fortunate," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "It's a cannibalistic kind of division, so we have to be able to separate ourselves at some point -- I just can't say it enough. I really like a lot of what we're doing. We just have to be that more consistent offensive group."

Along those lines, one primary issue in the first half for the Cubs was coming through with runners in scoring position, and that was a problem again on Sunday. The team went 0-for-8 in those situations, including coming up empty after notching a leadoff double in both the third and fourth innings against White Sox right-hander Ivan Nova. The Cubs went 0-for-13 with runners on base overall.

The Cubs’ lone breakthrough arrived in the seventh, when rookie Robel Garcia delivered a solo home run off Sox reliever Aaron Bummer. Maddon said he felt the Cubs' hitters became impatient as the game wore on against Nova, who entered the day with a 5.92 ERA but now has given up one run in 10 2/3 innings against the North Siders this season.

Baez -- who is off to the All-Star Game with Bryant and Willson Contreras -- said he feels the team needs to get back to an opposite-field mentality.

"Including me," Baez said. "I think we should get beat a little bit more trying to hit the ball the other way or trying to get jammed, instead of trying to hit homers. I include myself in that, because it's hard. It's hard to do and it's hard to take it out there, but I think if we trust each other as a team, we're going to go far."

All those missed chances in the batter’s box have gone hand in hand with the missed opportunity in the division.

“We're just as greedy as any fan out there. We want to be 10 games ahead,” Bryant said. “There's a lot more breathing room, but it just hasn't come that way for us this year. Yeah, first place is great, but we've missed a lot of opportunities to separate ourselves. And that's kind of the frustrating part. We just all have to play better, and I know we can do it.”

To some extent, maybe the Cubs can hope that their second-half history under Maddon holds true.

Dating back to 2015, the Cubs have collected a Major League-high 189 wins to go along with a .647 winning percentage after the All-Star break under Maddon's watch. Plenty of those late-season surges were helped by midseason trade acquisitions, too. The Indians are second on that list with 175 second-half victories, and the Cardinals are the next NL club with 164.

"You can't always lean on your track record," Bryant said. "Each year is different. Every team is coming for us. They're more competitive. Our division is more competitive. The bottom line is we just have to play better. And I don't think what we've done in the first half is going to be good enough."

Maddon echoed that assessment, while expressing his firm belief that the team has good things coming in the second half.

"I think our best baseball for 2019 is absolutely ahead of us, and I'm looking forward to that," Maddon said. "We're going to have to earn it. Nothing's given, like we've talked about. The division has gotten so much better, so you have to earn it, which I think is the right way to do anything.”

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.