The simple solution for Cubs' hot start to the second half

The simple solution for Cubs' hot start to the second half

After all the hand-wringing over the Cubs heading into the All-Star Break, they began the second half with an impressive sweep over a Pirates team that entered the weekend playing really well. 

And with Milwaukee's loss Sunday, the 50-43 Cubs now have a 2.5 game lead in the NL Central.

There's plenty of baseball left to be played, but the Cubs passed the first test of a crucial homestand with flying colors and have given their front office plenty of reason for optimism with more than two weeks to go before the MLB trade deadline.

Manager Joe Maddon was running out of superlatives to give his team after Sunday's 8-3 victory, lauding the "wonderful" focus and was confident the Cubs could actually play even better than they did over the weekend.

So what's been the biggest difference for a Cubs team that had struggled for weeks leading up to the All-Star Break?

"I mean, it's rest," Maddon said. "People don't want to listen to that because it's way too simple. It's a simple concept. If you're more rested, you tend to do what you do better. If you're not, you tend to do it not as good. 

"They don't let pilots fly too long. They don't let bus drivers drive too long. I don't like to drive my RV more than six or seven  hours. You lose something. We all do. It's just difficult because it's one of those nebulous concepts where you just can't wrap your mind around it except it's true."

Prior to the All-Star break, the Cubs played 52 games in 54 days from mid-May until last Friday's off-day leading into the final installment of the Crosstown Classic (or whatever it's called nowadays). 

For the players, the four days off during the break was more of a mental reset than anything else — even for the guys who went to Cleveland for the Midsummer Classic.

"You can play through the physical tiredness, but when you're going at it every day, getting beat up, it's more of a mental grind," Kris Bryant said. "So I think we're mentally rested and that's a good thing."

That mental rest showed up all weekend, as the sloppy play and the mistakes that had plagued the Cubs for the last few weeks was absolutely nowhere to be found.

There was Javy Baez motoring around from first to third base on Bryant's bloop single in the sixth inning Sunday — an aggressive read on the bases that eventually led to another important insurance run when he scored on Anthony Rizzo's sacrifice fly. 

Defensively, Baez made a few nice plays on the afternoon, including teaming up with second baseman Robel Garcia on a couple of nifty double plays.

That stellar play defensively and on the basepaths was evident all weekend as they played the "cleaner" style of play they had been talking about for the last couple of weeks.

Quite simply, the Cubs just looked more like the Cubs this weekend.

"[Feeling fresh mentally] shows up in your overall game," Bryant said. "My body's still tired, but my mind is pretty sharp. I know when I'm like that, I'm approaching each and every day the way I should be and I'm not worrying about what happened the previous game.

"If we can all do that as a team, we'll be really good. And there's plenty of stretches where we have done that and it's just been really fun coming to the field, winning a lot of games like that."

As the Cubs move the season forward and try to get this level of play to show up on a consistent basis, they know they need to keep the focus on themselves and not worry about scoreboard watching or what other teams are doing. 

But as far as starting off the second half on the right foot, you couldn't draw it up any better for the Cubs than what played out at Wrigley Field this weekend.

"We just want to keep the games close," Jason Heyward said. "Biggest thing about our first half is we're always in the game and we need to remember that. We can't get too down, we can't let things get away from us, we can't get sloppy. Don't take a break, because it's right there for us to take. Today was a good example of that."

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper


With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

The last three games have been more than forgettable for the Cubs.

From Wednesday’s 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies to back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday, the Cubs’ current road trip has looked much like those that preceded it. At various times, the offense has scuffled, the rotation has pitched a clunker and the bullpen has cracked.

The solution to the latest road trip woes? Give the ball to Jon Lester and get the hell out of the way.

Lester —  who pitched a clunker himself Aug. 6 against the A’s — did what the Cubs have become so accustomed to see him do over the past four seasons. The 35-year-old tossed 6+ shutout innings, allowing just four hits, leading the Cubs to a 2-0 win.

Lester had no room for error on Saturday, as the Cubs offense went hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings. While the Cubs bats were asleep, the Pirates threatened to break the game on open multiple times, loading the bases with one out (first inning), no outs (fifth) and getting runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth.

The latter two of those instances were assisted by errors by third baseman Kris Bryant, but that’s neither here nor there. Point being, with how the Cubs looked offensively, any Pirates runs could have proved critical on Saturday. Instead, Lester worked out of every jam, stymying the Pirates bats to an 0-for-12 line with RISP.

Winning Saturday’s game was obviously important for the Cubs, as it puts them a game ahead of the Cardinals in the win column (pending the outcome of St. Louis's game against the Reds later Saturday). But it was equally important for Lester, who called himself the “weakest link” in the Cubs starting rotation after that tough outing against the A’s.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that the regular season is 162 games long. Each day presents teams with a new slate, a chance to forget about what happened in the previous game and move forward.  If Saturday’s start shows anything, it’s that Lester and the Cubs are more than capable of putting a tough game in the rearview mirror and keep moving forward.

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Get to know Kelly Crull podcast

NBC Sports Chicago

Cubs Talk Podcast: Get to know Kelly Crull podcast

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, we get to know Kelly Crull. Kelly tells Luke Stuckmeyer about her love of bowling growing up, why she became a reporter and some of her favorite moments covering the Cubs.

01:00 Kelly's love of tennis at an early age

04:00 Following basketball while growing up in Indiana

06:00 Possible tennis showdown between Kelly and Megan Mawicke

09:30 Kelly talks about working in London & interviewing J.K. Rowling

14:00 When did she decide to become a reporter?

15:00 What is her favorite food?

16:00 Kelly's go-to karaoke song

18:00 Kelly's favorite NBA story (it involves Kevin Durant)

21:00 Favorite moments covering the Cubs

24:00 Dealing with the weather at Wrigley Field

28:00 Something we don't know about Kelly

31:00 What does Kelly enjoy watching at home the most?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast