Where do the Cubs stand a quarter into '21?
CHICAGO -- The Cubs are not where they want to be a quarter of the way through this season, but manager David Ross believes things have been trending in the right direction. Another win on Tuesday night backed up that assessment.
"Are we a perfect team? No, I don't think we're a perfect team," Ross said before his team's 6-3 win over the Nationals at Wrigley Field. "But we're a team that comes to work every day with a mentality to try to win that ballgame that day."
The latest win -- helped by a go-ahead, two-run homer by David Bote in the sixth inning -- pushed the North Siders over the break-even mark with a 21-20 record. It represents the third time dating back to April 10 that the Cubs have climbed over .500.
Back on May 2, the Cubs were in last place in the National League Central but have since moved steadily up to second. The first-place Cardinals, who Chicago faces this coming weekend, are next in the club's sights.
Here is a glance at where things stand for the Cubs, a little more than 25 percent of the way through the 2021 slate.
Nico Hoerner rapped a trio of well-struck singles in Tuesday's win, while Matt Duffy connected for another single and drew a walk. That duo has helped trigger the Cubs' offensive turnaround since the tough first few weeks of this season.
"They're just a very different at-bat compared to some of the bigger sluggers on the team," said Kris Bryant, who has played at an MVP-caliber level this year. "It's nice to kind of throw a wrinkle in here or there. They've been definitely doing that."
Duffy stepped into the lineup on a routine basis on April 21 and Hoerner was recalled from the Minors a day later. Entering Tuesday, the Cubs were batting .261 with a .765 OPS (fourth best in the Majors) dating back to April 21.
A big difference -- beyond the fact that Chicago had a .189/.286/.366 slash line prior to April 21 -- has been the additional contact added to the order. In that more recent sample, Chicago had a 76.2 percent contact rate, compared to 71.4 percent prior to Duffy and Hoerner's arrival.
"It's been really good for the team just overall," Bryant said. "I just really like watching their at-bats."
Right-hander Zach Davies limited Washington to a pair of infield singles in four shutout frames before flinching in the fifth and sixth on Tuesday night. He walked off the hill with three runs allowed in a relatively solid performance.
In a way, Davies has embodied the Cubs' rotation as a whole this season. The righty has fashioned a 2.11 ERA in May, compared to a forgettable 9.47 ERA in the season's opening month. It was a struggle for Chicago's starters (5.81 ERA) in April as a whole.
"The first month is tough at times," Davies said. "Where some things don't go your way and you're frustrated, and things kind of snowball. But it's a long season, especially this year with going back to a full season."
Lately, both Kyle Hendricks and Davies have been getting back on track. Jake Arrieta recently returned from the injured list and Adbert Alzolay has been taking steps forward. Trevor Williams has labored of late, but has been strong in bursts.
With Davies' showing Tuesday, the rotation has pieced together a respectable 3.81 ERA for May.
Rookies Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele followed Davies on Tuesday night with two shutout innings of relief. That bridged the gap to veteran setup man Dan Winkler and MLB's active saves leader in Craig Kimbrel.
The mix of young talent from the Cubs' farm system, combined with the veteran arms with years of MLB experience, has formed a solid relief corps for the North Siders. Tuesday's four innings of shutout ball gave the bullpen a strong 2.41 ERA for May.
"They've picked us up early on when we weren't getting a lot of length [from the rotation]," Ross said. "It's exciting. It's a group that definitely you root for and you love having, because we've got so many weapons down there that are just starting to come into their own, and some veteran guys down there you trust as well."
In the opening frame on Tuesday, first baseman Anthony Rizzo made a leaping catch to rob a would-be hit from Starlin Castro that could have ignited a rally. It was just one night earlier that Hoerner made a potentially game-saving play at second.
The defensive numbers say the Cubs' defense has been subpar (minus 10 defensive runs saved), especially compared to last season (25 DRS and a Team Gold Glove Award). That could improve if the contact-reliant rotation continues to improve.
"I feel like we've got a staff that, when they're really pitching well," Hoerner said, "they're keeping the ball on the ground a lot. Last year, I know we ranked pretty high on a lot of the defensive metrics. We've had some unlucky breaks with the shifts this year, I think."