SAN DIEGO -- The Cubs will close the first half with the best record in the National League for the first time since 2008. What will be the key for them in the second half to maintain that? Getting the starting pitching on track, manager Joe Maddon said.In Spring Training,
SAN DIEGO -- The Cubs will close the first half with the best record in the National League for the first time since 2008. What will be the key for them in the second half to maintain that? Getting the starting pitching on track, manager Joe Maddon said.
In Spring Training, Maddon said the starting five had the potential to be the best rotation he's had since joining the Cubs in 2015. But Kyle Hendricks, Tyler Chatwood and Jose Quintana haven't been as sharp, and Yu Darvish has only made eight starts because of injuries.
"I think in some regards, people look at us in a 'less than' light because of what the Yankees and Red Sox have done," Maddon said Sunday. "They've been so far out in front of the pack. We've done pretty nice work and have the best record in the National League. That's the point. We're held to a really high standard now, which I love. I think it's almost been a sneaky manner that we've arrived at this point.
"To be here without the benefit of the pitching like I thought it would be is pretty phenomenal," he said.
The Cubs certainly didn't expect Chatwood (3-5, 5.04 ERA) to lead the Major Leagues in walks (73).
"The walks are exorbitant. He knows that," Maddon said of the right-hander. "He has this ability to get out of jams, too. It's not a process he wants to incorporate, and neither do we. We have to get him sharper, we have to get him pitching more deeply in games and we need to get him around the plate. His stuff is extraordinary, his stuff is that good.
"If we could get this to click in, he could be so dynamic in the second half," Maddon said.
The Cubs' bullpen has been heroic in the first half and has done well despite losing closer Brandon Morrow, C.J. Edwards and Brian Duensing to injuries.
Who does Maddon expect to have the greatest impact in the second half?
"I want to believe it'll be the pitching," Maddon said. "Kyle Hendricks still hasn't pitched to his levels yet. Quintana hasn't pitched to his levels yet and I believe he will. Chatwood, too. Those are the three guys who, to me, could make all the difference in the world."
• The Cubs began play on Sunday leading the NL in runs, team batting average, on-base percentage and OPS.
"This is my idea of what an offense should look like and they're just learning it, too," Maddon said. "I'd like to see us continue what we're doing offensively and stay right in that path."
Asked to pick most improved players, Maddon tabbed three: Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr. and Javier Baez. Who would've expected Baez to lead the Cubs in RBIs? Or that Almora would rank among the top three in the NL in batting average? Or that Heyward would bounce back and bat .286, becoming an effective No. 2 hitter?
• Hendricks will open the second half on Thursday night when the Cubs play host to the Cardinals in a five-game series over four days. It will be the Cubs' first series against interim St. Louis manager Mike Shildt, who took over on Sunday after Mike Matheny was dismissed.
"I always hate to see when a manager loses his job," Maddon said. "I feel for him and his family, I do. That's my immediate thought. It always concerns me -- you think about the guy and think about his family. I'm sure he'll land on his feet well. He's got a great track record.
"What it means, it's almost like Cincinnati -- you've got to rework it," Maddon said. "What is this guy like? What are they willing to do, try to do, how do they react to situations -- all that stuff changes to a new guy."
• Almora had to return to Chicago for a personal matter and was placed on the family medical emergency leave list and David Bote recalled from Triple-A Iowa on Sunday.
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.