It was about a month ago when I last looked at the Chicago Cubs and their current season. At that time, which was just ahead of the All-Star break, the Cubs seemed to be inviting both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals into the NL Central divisional race. However, the pitching “disappearing act” that characterized the Cubs at about that time appears to be history. In recent weeks, the Cubs have made it nearly impossible to picture anyone but them as the NL Central champs.
Heading into Wednesday, the Cubs hold a 12-game lead over the second-placed Cardinals in the NL Central. With about 50-52 games remaining in Major League Baseball schedules, the Cubs have really buried any serious hopes that the other teams in the NL Central had a few weeks ago. Currently, in the midst of an 8-game winning streak, Chicago are the hottest team in the majors.
On the mound Kyle Hendricks has stayed strong while Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel have returned to form. The latter pitcher, in particular, has been very effective since the All-Star break. In four starts, Hammel is 4-0 with a 1.50 ERA and a WHIP of 0.96.
Overall, there is no serious weak-point in Chicago’s five-man starting rotation. Even John Lackey, at 9-7, simply appears to be unlucky not to have a stronger record as his WHIP is low at 1.05. Injuries are always a possibility, but with the Cubs, it would take two injured starting pitchers to see them face serious adversity. If the Cubs face one injury, then they could shorten the rotation to a four-man one in the playoffs and still have a strong starter every game.
In the batting order, Dexter Fowler’s return to the lineup has been a successful one thus far. The center fielder and leadoff hitter, who missed all games between June 18th and July 22nd, has a post-All Star break on-base percentage of .371 at the top of the order. His OPS is down a bit compared to the early parts of the season, but lately, he’s nearly averaging a run per game, making him a very clear contributor.
The whole team picture is a beautiful one if you are Cubs fan, yet it’s hard not to bring up history – both recent and very-very-very long-term trends. With recent history, there’s the disappointment of last season that lingers. The Cubs fell in the NLCS big time after a whole bunch of hype surrounding them.
The longer-termed trends hardly require review for baseball fans: unless you can remember 1945 you can’t remember the Cubs making the World Series. You’d have to be older than a supercentenarian (110 years old) and approaching maximum human lifespan to have a chance of remembering their last world title in 1908.
But the Cubs’ playoff destination appears to be clear and that’s unlike the other NL teams. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are currently neck-and-neck in the NL West. Washington, leaders of the NL East, have a healthy lead over Miami, but it’s still just 6.5 games. Meanwhile, any other NL team still in contention might be looking at the Wild Card game, a game that will take one team of the picture quickly and possibly use up the winner’s ace for a bunch of critical days.
The Cubs, barring a catastrophe, are heading to the divisional round, and they have a better chance than anyone of having home-field advantage through two rounds. Right now, the NLCS would project as Chicago vs. Washington, another franchise with post-season futility that extends back to Montreal days.
The odds-makers have certainly taken notice of the Cubs again. Chicago, who drifted during their slump, are approaching EVEN odds to win the NLCS with numerous firms, including bet365 who have them at 7 to 5. Now that the Cubs appear to be clicking on all cylinders, as they were when they opened the season, Chicago fans have to be wondering if this really is finally the year.