Their wins are not comfortable. Their losses are at times puzzling. The 2019 Cubs are not behaving like a steamroller that would create the feeling that a world championship is inevitable. Does this mean they can’t win?
After a nail-biting first 6 innings, the Cubs found late game power against the Pirates to open the second half. Bryant provided the home run, enough to help push across 3 runs in the bottom of the 7th and eventually to pull out the win.
The Pirates are now 2 games under .500. This Cubs team who expected to handily take the NL Central are finding themselves playing crab in the bucket with smaller crabs. By now, as the second half begins, we learn that these smaller crabs together have some pull.
Take the bottom two teams. The Pirates are 3rd in all of baseball in batting average. They can flat out hit. The Reds are 3rd in all of baseball in ERA. They can flat out pitch. If you catch either of these teams on a good day, they will beat you. There will be no steamrolling this season. The other teams have some assets, beatable ones, but you still have to beat them and not yourself.
It was known going into this season that the NL Central got better. Kicked off by the arrival of perennial MVP contender, Paul Goldschmidt, coming to the Central, but he has not been his MVP-caliber self, yet other teams and players have emerged to put a lot of potholes in the Cubs road to glory.
If we see the division as a battle until the end with all of the teams entering the ring taking equally wild swings at each other, then we must look outside the division to break the stalemate.
Optimism can be found when we look at the Cubs remaining schedule outside of the NL Central. Take a look. As of post-game:
San Diego 45-45
San Francisco 41-48
San Francisco 41-48
New York Mets 40-50
San Diego 45-45
Not a single first-place team. Not one.
Sure, you have to win on the field and the A’s are good, the Nats are hot, but that is about it. Even if they play .500 in their division, they can accomplish great success by just beating teams they are having a better year than to date. Only the A’s have a better record (maybe the Nats if they win tonight.)
There is a flip side to this place of optimism. That it will be hard to frame this season as a success if they don’t go deep into the post-season on the heels of a division win. They are in first place now and we established that they have a fairly weak out of division schedule, so the Cubs are in the driver’s seat. There may be a lot of road left, but barring major injury, most of the obstacles would be self-placed.
As for the other two teams on their heels…
The Brewers still have the Astros, Twins, A’s
The Cardinals still have the A’s, Dodgers, Astros
If there is a time for expectation it is now. The Cubs start the second half at home, they have a weaker schedule than their closest division foes, they added a closer in Kimbrel. The talent is there.
We have heard a lot of grumblings about the hot seat for Joe Maddon long before this point in the season. It was hot in part because of the poor September last season, it was hot because of the organizational changes that were made after learning from a number of exit interviews with team leaders going into the off-season.
There is not much left to change with players other than to find ways for them to consistently execute. A few deals could be made to sure up some depth, but the pieces are there.
In the meantime, there is another level to reach when we look at what is happening with the American League’s Yankees or Astros or the NL’s Dodgers, but good execution gets the Cubs to a place to be able to win it on the diamond, where anything can happen, no matter the opponent.
But they must get there first and this division has seen leads evaporate quickly, it has seen even hot teams get neutralized by a divisional opponent. This starts to crush the wild card hopes and put more on the value of a division title. The NL Wild Card as it stands has 7 teams within 3 games of the final slot. This will be a long battle and any team around, in the end, will have to depend on other teams in the end. A bad spot to be in unless you win it outright.
So the Cubs need separation, space in their division to pull away and take advantage of the teams they will be playing outside of it. It is in their grasp and it creates great accountability, because of the same reason.
We know they can win, because of their ability, but now, if they can continue to get big hits as Heyward provided in the 8th with Kimbrel closing games out with little drama, we then know when it comes to their division.
They should win.