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Happ, Davis lift Cubs in up-and-down first half

Rizzo provides remedy for Chicago's leadoff woes
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- The Cubs didn't need a T-shirt this season to tell them they'd have a target on their backs after winning their first World Series in 108 years.

"Teams are playing us tough, and the games are a lot more intense and energized," third baseman Kris Bryant said. "We've won before. Last year, we came from behind and did that well."

CHICAGO -- The Cubs didn't need a T-shirt this season to tell them they'd have a target on their backs after winning their first World Series in 108 years.

"Teams are playing us tough, and the games are a lot more intense and energized," third baseman Kris Bryant said. "We've won before. Last year, we came from behind and did that well."

And they'll have to do it again if they want to win the National League Central. One year ago at the All-Star break, the Cubs were 53-35 with a seven-game lead over the Cardinals and a plus-139 run differential. This year, they're tied with the Cards for second at 43-45, 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers.

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"We've never been able to get on a roll, and with that comes that edgy kind of feeling," manager Joe Maddon said. "We've underachieved offensively, and our starting pitching hasn't been as good as we thought. We've been playing from behind a lot. It's hard to create edginess under those circumstances.

"Every year's a different method," Maddon said. "Thank God we're in this division right now, based on records."

Video: PIT@CHC: Bryant opens the scoring with triple to left

What went right
Wade Davis may not electrify the crowd with his fastball the way Aroldis Chapman did, but the right-hander has been perfect as the closer. Ian Happ's promotion and pop -- he has 13 homers in 51 games -- provided a spark. Jason Heyward missed time with an injury but he has looked better at the plate, and all of his offseason work appears to have paid off.

What went wrong
The Cubs are still searching for a leadoff man. Inserting Kyle Schwarber into the No. 1 spot didn't work. He ended up being sent to Triple-A Iowa after batting .171 in his first 64 games. Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey all missed time because of injuries. The offense has sputtered, especially with runners in scoring position. Bryant had 25 home runs and 65 RBIs at All-Star break last year, but he's got 18 homers and 38 this year. And Addison Russell had 51 RBIs at the break last year, but 29 this year. The starting rotation hasn't been as dominant, either.

Video: Must C Crushed: Rizzo keeps rolling as leadoff hitter

What we learned
The Cubs miss Dexter Fowler more than they may want to admit, and it isn't just his leadoff skills but what Maddon called his "effervescence." Anthony Rizzo provided the biggest spark when he batted first, hitting home runs in his first two games at the top of the order. The Cubs won't say there was a hangover effect after playing in the postseason back-to-back years, but the rotation, especially Jake Arrieta, hasn't been as sharp. The front office made a statement when Miguel Montero was designated for assignment after criticizing Arrieta.

First half top player (non-pitcher)
Rizzo rebounded from a .194 May to bat .320 in June, and he thrived in his part-time role as a leadoff batter. Pressed into the No. 1 spot, he was 15-for-49 (.306) with five home runs, two doubles and 12 RBIs. What's even more impressive is his approach against left-handed pitchers. Rizzo chokes up on the bat and works the count, and his average vs. southpaws (.289) is better than against right-handers (.248).

Video: CHC@WSH: Davis fans Difo to secure the save

First half top pitcher
Maddon knew Davis from their days together in Tampa Bay, and the right-hander hasn't disappointed. He heads to the All-Star break 16-for-16 in save situations with a 1.80 ERA in 31 games. Davis isn't flashy but he's effective, and he's been a huge help to the other relievers, going over video and talking about situations. The only negative is he doesn't dance. The other relievers do some creative footwork in the bullpen when a Cubs player homers, and Davis has yet to participate.

First half top rookie
What's been most impressive about Happ is his ability to shrug off a bad at-bat early in the game and bounce back. In his Major League debut on May 13, for example, he struck out in his first at-bat, drew a walk in his second, and collected his first hit, RBI and home run in the seventh inning when he connected off the Cardinals' Carlos Martinez. Happ has played all three outfield positions and second base. He ranks among the top five NL rookies in extra-base hits despite having nearly 100 fewer at-bats. He led the Cubs with eight home runs in June.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast.

Chicago Cubs, Wade Davis, Ian Happ