Los Angeles Dodgers

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

The state of the National League is good news for the Cubs

The state of the National League is good news for the Cubs

Now is the time for the Cubs to strike in the National League.

Yes, it's only May and the season isn't even a quarter of the way over yet.

But the NL powerhouses may not get any weaker than it is at this very moment and the Cubs are primed to take advantage.

Take the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example.

The team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series and the squad that bounced the Cubs from the postseason last year woke up Friday morning with a 16-21 record after losing to the Cincinnati Reds Thursday night. For perspective, the Dodgers have only 5 more wins this year than the Reds — a rebuilding team without a prayer of contending and already fired their manager weeks ago.

"We talk about it in the clubhouse: This isn’t a ‘try’ league," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Thursday night. "Everyone is trying. You’ve got to get production. When you can’t get separation, it stresses everyone. We’ve got to be better at all facets of the game, to be honest."

The Dodgers will not play a single game with both Corey Seager and Justin Turner in their lineup in 2018, given that Turner is still not back from a wrist injury and Seager is now done for the year after Tommy John surgery. Given their importance to the L.A. lineup, that's the equivalence of the Cubs never playing a game with both members of Bryzzo in the lineup together at the same time.

As Joe Maddon has astutely pointed out twice in the last week, the Dodgers always use the 10-day disabled list liberally, but they're also currently without Clayton Kershaw, Logan Forsythe, Tony Cingrani and Hyun-Jin Ryu (who is expected to be out for months) and they just got Yasiel Puig and Rich Hill back off the shelf. That's a significant chunk of the roster's impact players.

The Dodgers' best hitter all year has actually been Matt Kemp (.333 AVG, .913 OPS), who was acquired as a flyer of sorts in a salary dump trade with the Atlanta Braves.

Let's move to the NL East, where the Washington Nationals haven't had much better luck on the injury front.

It was just announced late Thursday Adam Eaton would be out indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his tricky ankle. He's played just 31 games in a Washington uniform since coming over in the deal with the White Sox before the 2017 season.

Daniel Murphy hasn't played a game yet this season, Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters have missed time and a slew of pitchers (Joe Ross, Koda Glover, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Grace, Jhonatan Solano) are on the disabled list recovering from arm injuries.

All that has led to Bryce Harper in the leadoff spot (the only way new manager Davey Martinez can find protection in the lineup for Kris Bryant's bestie), a mildly disappointing 21-18 record and third place standing in the division behind both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies.

Coming into the season, the Dodgers and Nationals were seen as the Cubs' main competitors in the race to the NL pennant and both teams have gotten off to slow starts.

In the Cubs' own division, they sit in fourth place, but just 1.5 games behind the leading Cardinals who just swept Bryzzo and Co. in St. Louis last weekend.

The Cardinals also just lost their ace and the NL leader in ERA — Carlos Martinez — due to a lat injury. Of course, St. Louis is also without its heartbeat as Yadier Molina will miss more than a month after taking a Kris Bryant foul tip to the groin last Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers woke up Friday morning with a run differential of 0, which would normally not lend itself to a 22-16 record. Josh Hader and the Milwaukee bullpen have been incredible, but the first six weeks of the season have not answered many questions about the longevity and staying power of the Brewers rotation.

The Cubs will tell you they only care about themselves and can't waste their energy focusing on their competitors in the NL. But now could be a prime time to stack a bunch of wins together and this is the right part of the schedule to do so.

The Jekyll and Hyde Cubs offense has received a major gift from the MLB schedule-makers, beginning with the three games against the Marlins earlier in the week. That kicked off a stretch where 9 of 13 Cubs games come against three of the six worst pitching staffs in baseball (Marlins, White Sox, Reds). The other four games are against a Braves pitching staff that has been overperforming to date based on their peripheral stats.

Sure, the Cubs embarked on an 11-games-in-10-days run beginning with Game 1 of Crosstown Friday, but when 7 of those games come against the lowly White Sox and Reds and a team has as much position-player depth as the Cubs do, it shouldn't be too hard to put together a couple of nice weeks in a row offensively.

Now it's just a matter of the Cubs taking care of business and doing what they're supposed to do against a soft part of the schedule.

Brandon Morrow has been a huge pickup for the Cubs — even when he doesn't pitch

Brandon Morrow has been a huge pickup for the Cubs — even when he doesn't pitch

The symbolism is undeniable.

When Brandon Morrow first walked out to the Imagine Dragons song "Whatever It Takes" at Wrigley Field, I couldn't help but think how it was the perfect song.

The 33-year-old pitcher has done whatever it takes to stick around in his career, withstanding injury after injury to reinvent himself from a top starter to one of the more dynamic relief pitchers in the game.

Morrow is the man the Cubs tabbed to replace Wade Davis, who set records as the Chicago closer in 2017 and then showed his "big balls" in the postseason.

The move has worked out just fine in the first month of the season, with Morrow yet to give up a run and going 6-for-6 in save opportunities. (He did, however, allow an inherited runner to score in that 17-inning marathon in the second game of the season in Miami.)

But Morrow's greatest impact may not even be when he pitches.

Carl Edwards Jr. has looked absolutely dominant as Morrow's main setup man and earlier in the season, the young right-hander credited the Cubs veteran pitchers with helping him fully realize the need to attack hitters.

[READ: Carl Edwards Jr., self-actualized]

Edwards has had issues in the past in getting too fine with his pitches instead of going right after guys with his A+ stuff.

"He's been awesome," Morrow said of Edwards. "Talking about it all spring — attacking. You see when he puts guys on the defensive what he can do. It's impressive.

"His shit's great and when he throws it in the strike zone, they really have no chance."

Edwards and Morrow set down the Brewers in the first two games of this weekend series, working the eighth and ninth inning, respectively, in one-run Cubs victories. 

On the season, they've combined to allow just 1 run and 13 hits in 21.2 innings with 30 strikeouts.

"They've been outstanding," Maddon said. "The thing with those two guys is let's not overuse them right now. It's early. You want to make sure they're frisky all year long.

"They've been really good. Morrow, this is his first taste of doing this thing. I love the look. He comes out there and he's focused, man, and he's got the look. I like that a lot. I think that the way he's doing it rubs off on the guys in front of him."

Morrow throws 98 mph like it's nothing — "I just make it look easy," he quipped — and said he's actually still felt rusty to begin the season before a shutdown inning Friday was the best he's felt his stuff play.

When the weather starts heating up, watch out.

"A well-located fastball — regardless of speed — is always weapon No. 1," Morrow said. "I try and spot the fastball and put them on the defensive by attacking and getting them into swing mode and you'll see some swings out of the zone. You can get ahead and then dictate pretty much whatever you want."

That mindset has worked for Morrow the last few years, as he's walked just 15 batters in 68.2 innings as a reliever since the start of the 2016 season.

He's always had strikeout stuff, even leading the league in K/9 in 2010 (10.2) while working as a starter with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The thing with Morrow has always been health. He appeared in 45 regular-season games with the Dodgers in 2017, the first time since 2012 he's pitched in at least 20 games in a year.

The Cubs definitely want to be cautious of him moving forward, especially after he appeared in all 7 World Series games last fall and pitched in 14 of the Dodgers' 15 postseason games.

Maddon is certainly glad to be on the same side as Morrow now.

"He might've thrown the best game I've ever seen that was not a no-hitter against us in Toronto a couple years ago," Maddon said, referring to his time as the Tampa Bay Rays manager. "... He's different in all the best ways. His stuff is that good.

"Combine that with the way he goes about his business and it's kind of interesting to watch."