The Chicago Cubs started out their season with a shutout loss to the St. Louis Cardinals with Jon Lester on the hill, and they finished off the first half of the campaign in identical fashion as they dropped a 6-0 decision on Monday night at rain-soaked Wrigley Field.
Aside from the crazy similarities between games 1 and 81, the fact remains that the Cubs are in a pretty good spot. They are nine and a half games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, but they do hold a two and a half game lead over the New York Mets for the second wild card spot in the National League, they have gotten some tremendous pitching as of late, and young stars like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have been playing very well for a team that is looking to be a serious contender for the first time in nearly a decade.
Even with those positives, there are still plenty of reasons for concern. The team has one of the worst offenses in the National League, ranking near the bottom of the heap in the senior circuit in terms of runs scored (11th), batting average (13th), and strikeouts (most in the NL). They haven’t gotten the type of production they’ve needed from guys like Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler, and players like Starlin Castro still aren’t quite living up to expectations.
Add to that the fact that Jon Lester has had difficulty performing consistently (although measures like Fielding Independent Pitching and others indicate that he is better than he’s been given credit for) and the fact that the Cubs are just 2-8 against the Cardinals this season, and there are some reasons for concern and pessimism after the halfway mark of the season.
Despite those negatives, the positives far outpace them. Joe Maddon’s team has developed a never say die attitude, going 19-15 in one-run games so far this season. They may be striking out a lot, but they’re walking a lot too, with the fifth-most free passes of any team in baseball. They are stealing bases at an excellent rate, converting on over 73% of their attempted steals. They have found ways to win even as their offense has sputtered, winning thanks to creative tactics and tremendous pitching over the last month or so of play.
Most importantly of all, the Cubs have persevered through injuries and the second-toughest schedule in baseball this season and still are in prime position to secure a playoff spot. Maddon has this group believing in themselves, and with all of his techniques and little tweaks to the lineup and the strategy of the team, he really has effected a serious culture and attitude change within the 25 men on the roster.
That, perhaps more than any other factor, represents why Cubs fans should be optimistic after the first half of the season. This team has fully bought into what Maddon has been preaching, and although their offense has struggled and the final order of the bullpen hasn’t been established (although adding Rafael Soriano to the mix will make an already strong bullpen even better), this team has found ways to win, and that’s the key ingredient if a team wants to make an October run.