The Cubs created that here-we-go-again feeling on Opening Night.
The hated St. Louis Cardinals shut out their rivals on national TV, with ESPN driving the conversation that $155 million ace Jon Lester has the yips. The scene at the Wrigley Field construction zone became a national embarrassment for the business side, with photos of the long bathroom lines going viral on social media.
But ToiletGate stopped trending — like everything does in a second-by-second news cycle — and halfway through the season the Cubs are on pace for 88 wins and a wild-card ticket into the playoffs.
“It definitely feels right,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Cardinals. “It feels like we haven’t hit our real stride yet. I feel like we’ve been really battling through each and every day, which I love. We really haven’t played as good as we’re capable of playing. Put it that way.
“Had we played our best ball to this point — and we’re in this position — I’d be a little more concerned. But we haven’t gotten there yet, so I think there’s a lot to look forward to.”
With that in mind, here’s what we learned about the Cubs during that 81-game snapshot:
— Theo Epstein’s front office thinks this team is good.
After making a splash in the offseason, the Cubs kept being aggressive and getting creative, sensing the chance to play deep into October. They rebuilt the bullpen on the fly, watching their relievers put up a 1.78 ERA since May 23. They called up Addison Russell after only 11 games at Triple-A Iowa, played a natural shortstop out of position at second base and dismissed the Super Two financial implications. They made Kyle Schwarber, last year’s No. 4 overall draft pick, their designated hitter for a five-game interleague stretch last month, believing he could come back from Iowa as a difference-maker in a pennant race.
— The Maddon Effect is real.
You wonder if any teams regret not firing the manager last October and giving Maddon that five-year, $25 million contract. But it’s also hard to imagine a better match than the star manager and this big-tent franchise.
Who else would invite Simon the Magician to perform in front of the team or have “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star Jeff Garlin sit in on his pregame media session?
Maddon is style and substance. It’s the ability to be hip and cool and allow young players to relax — while still having instant credibility with the veterans. It’s being fluent in analytics and reaching out to the Geek Department for more information. It’s creating diversions for the easily distracted Chicago media when the team isn’t playing well.
— Anthony Rizzo deserves to be in the MVP conversation.
The face-of-the-franchise first baseman didn’t become satisfied with one All-Star selection, getting voted in this year by the players, which made it even more special. Rizzo doesn’t try to come across as an analytical hitter or the deepest thinker — hey, it’s just baseball — but that’s probably by design.
This is someone who tinkers with his swing, wants to get better and works on his all-around game. It’s probably too soon to expect a Gold Glove, but Rizzo has almost as many stolen bases (12) as home runs (16) and an OPS (.960) that ranked fourth in the league.
The Cubs just hope Rizzo — who’s been drilled 18 times already and refuses to wear body armor — doesn’t get hit by the wrong pitch in the wrong spot.
— Kris Bryant is as good as advertised.
After the war of words in spring training, and all the Boras Corp. rhetoric, Bryant lived up to the hype and will be joining Rizzo at next week’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. Even with missing eight games while serving his time at Triple-A, the third baseman is on pace for around 25 homers and 100 RBIs.
“He’s got huge power,” New York Mets manager Terry Collins said. “As this guy grows into himself and starts to know what you’ve got to do up here, he’s going to be a good hitter, a real good hitter. He’s got some feet, too. Watching him in the field defensively, he’s got some range. He’s legit.”
— The Cubs still don’t have nearly enough pitching.
Even in using 80 draft picks on pitchers since the Epstein administration took over after the 2011 season. Even after giving Lester that megadeal, reuniting with Jason Hammel and finding Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks through deadline deals. Don’t let the 3.49 rotation ERA fool you — the Cubs will keep looking to upgrade with at least another starter between now and July 31.
The farm system isn’t close to producing a frontline starter, which explains why Donn Roach, Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler have entered the mix. That’s the trade-off in spending first-round picks on college hitters for three years in a row (the latest being University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Ian Happ).
“Overall, our bats have been a little bit ahead of our arms, and hopefully that will all balance out,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We felt like that was the right way to go. There’s a security involved and a confidence in taking hitters at the top of the draft.
“We hope we’re not picking up there again. And when you are doing it, you want to make sure you come away with valuable assets.”
— Starlin Castro isn’t the player we thought he would become.
Maybe it’s too early for that judgment — especially with a three-time All-Star shortstop — but it’s fair to wonder if it’s ever going to happen here when he’s surrounded by young talent, veteran leadership and one of the game’s best managers.
Castro got singled out during those five straight fifth-place finishes and unfairly became a lightning rod for Cubs fans and the Chicago media. The Cubs hoped Castro would raise his game playing on a good team, and at the age of 25 he should have several prime years in front of him.
Yet Castro’s first half (.619 OPS, 15 errors) might have been the worst stretch of his professional career.
— The Cubs play with an edge.
This team can be a nightmare for beat writers on deadline, with 19 one-run victories and nine wins in extra innings. Remember, the Cubs had been 0-79 when trailing entering the ninth inning last season, and players quickly recognized this new sense of momentum: That’s a game we would have lost last year.
This could also become a team that people love to hate, because this is a conservative sport with too many unwritten rules and old-school codes — and not enough personalities.
The Cubs are still walking a fine line with Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy. Playing with emotion — and talking such a big game — will inevitably create friction in a pressurized environment.
“The game has to be fun,” said Curtis Granderson, the Mets outfielder who grew up in Chicago. “It’s the same game we’ve been playing since we were little, and we tend to be at our best when we’re having the most fun.
“Obviously, there’s the focus, the seriousness and attention that you have to put out there. But you can still do all those things and still have fun at the same time. I think people confuse fun with lack of respect or not playing hard.”
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— The Cardinals are still in their heads.
Maddon talks about how the Cubs need to get over the “mental hump” at Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals always seem to get the bounces and pounce on mistakes. The Cubs won only two of their first 10 games against the Cardinals, getting outscored 51-26 by the best team in baseball and seeing how much farther they still have to go in this rebuild.
“The guys that have been a part of this organization haven’t won for a long time,” Lester said. “It will take some time to learn (how to win). We’ll be there. Sometimes it only takes one where you’re down (a few runs) and we come back and win. Everybody gets a little bit of confidence, gets a little bit of aura about them, and you take it from there. But until that happens ... we got to figure out a way to combat that.”