Chicago Cubs using timely hitting, bullpen, positive clubhouse culture to win

SAN DIEGO — All is right in Cubs Nation as the 2016 world champions used the final week before the All-Star break to take command of their division, and the National League, and now find themselves on top of both after a weekend sweep of the San Diego Padres.

“I think in some regards, people look at us in a less than [favorable light] only because of what the Red Sox and Yankees have done,” Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before the team’s 7-4 win on Sunday. “Otherwise we’ve done pretty nice work.”

It should come as no surprise they’re in the playoff hunt again but the journey to the top of the standings — at the symbolic halfway point of the season — didn’t go exactly as scripted.

The Cubs poured a huge amount of resources into their starting staff over the past 12 months but other than Sunday’s winner, Jon Lester, the rotation was the weak link in the first half — if the sixth-ranked ERA in the league can be considered a weak link. Instead, a maturing offense and deeper-than-thought bullpen carried the load.

In fact, their offense might be the envy of the NL before it’s all said and done. They rank first in every major category except for home runs — but they think that’s a good thing. It means they’re getting the job done in other ways — more entertaining ways, in fact. Ways that could come in handy in October.

“In general, MLB is looking for this,” Maddon stated emphatically. “They’re looking for more action in the game. They’re looking for the ball to be put in play. You can have it both ways. You can.”

Maddon is referencing perhaps the most important statistic for his team in the first half, though it might be the least sexy. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Cubs rank first in opposite-field hits in the NL and second in baseball after ending last season ranked 19th in that category. In their fourth season together as position players, they’ve finally understood the message Maddon has been preaching.

“The best way I can describe it is, for the last several years, every hitter has been trying to hit every pitch they see for a home run, which is impossible,” he said. “Thus you get this big swing-and-miss. Pitchers throw homers.”

That last line has resonated with his hitters the most. It’s usually the opposing pitcher who determines the outcome of the at-bat. If he gives a player a cookie to hit, then it’s his job to put it in the seats, but if the pitch hits the corner then putting the ball into the opposite field — or laying off a borderline one — is the winning move. The Cubs finally get it.

“Guys are getting older and more experienced,” Anthony Rizzo said. “That leads to quality at-bats. Guys are making the pitcher grind. It sets up the next guy for success.”

“This is exactly what I’ve always envisioned offensively,” Maddon added. “This is my idea of what an offense should look like.”

Another staple of the offense is the notion that no player gets left behind. At a time when clubhouse cultures are being discussed, in light of the firing of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, the Cubs are one poster team for making sure all parts of the puzzle are treated equal.

“It does seem really unique,” Ian Happ said. “That’s the culture here. It really helps.”

Happ should know. He was the early season target for fans, but Maddon and his teammates never wavered. Despite striking out nearly 50 percent of the time, the team remained faithful. Happ figured things out, as did Jason Heyward, who has been criticized more than any Cub since he arrived to town. He’s one of the best comeback stories in baseball.

The list of contributors on offense is long, but no one deserves more praise than first-time All-Star, Javier Baez. His rise to stardom has been meteoric, but even he has to fit in.

“Javy is having this All-Star, MVP-type year, but he’s not drinking his own Kool-Aid,” Rizzo said. “He’s still the same Javy. That’s what’s so good about everyone here. You have nine or 10 first-rounders in this room that have been pumped up their whole careers, but in here we’re just normal guys. Nobody thinks they’re better than anyone else.”

And no one thinks they’re worse when in a slump. The culture set by Maddon continues to work, even as staying on top continues to get harder and harder as the years go on.

“We’re held to a really high standard now, which I love, but I think it’s almost been in a sneaky manner that we’ve arrived at this point,” Maddon said.

It has been sneaky because up until a few days ago the Cubs had been trailing the Brewers in the NL Central. That all changed in the span of a couple days. Milwaukee got swept by the Pirates in a five-game series while the Cubs were sweeping the Padres. The division changed hands.

“I feel like we’ve been playing really good baseball for a while and the Brewers have kind of matched us,” Lester said. “We were kind of able to gain some ground this weekend.”

Besides an evolving offense, the Cubs’ starting staff was picked up by a deep bullpen bolstered by Triple-A arms who aren’t exactly household names. As a group they rank second in the NL with a 3.09 ERA while losing the least amount of games (10).

“Any good organization, that’s kind of the storyline,” Lester said. “You’re going to have bumps and bruises throughout the year and the guys that are better able to come up and fill those holes, can definitely fill the void when it’s needed.”

Righty James Norwood was the latest, as he worked out of a bases-loaded jam for Lester on Sunday, while last-minute call-up David Bote led the way in the field and at the plate.

The Cubs’ farm system isn’t as deep as it used to be, but perhaps there’s enough there for a deal before July 31. Bote has become a trade chip — or perhaps made others more expendable. Either way, a deal for a pitcher or two seems likely.

And that’s where all storylines for the Cubs come back to: starting pitching. It would go against the norm to win a championship without an improvement in that category. While the team has stated they’re looking to bolster their staff this month, they also believe the answers can come from within. If Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood, Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks simply pitch up to their norms — nothing more — the Cubs could be a second-half powerhouse.

“To be here without the benefit of the pitching like we thought it would be, is pretty phenomenal, actually,” Maddon said. In nearly the same breath, he added: “Starting pitching holds a big key for the second half for us.”

That’s where the upside is for the Cubs, unless it becomes an anomaly year in which the offense carries them all the way to and through October. For now, the Cubs will savior their place at the break without any concern about the Brewers or the upheaval in St. Louis. This is their division until further notice.

“The biggest thing is keeping your head down and keep plodding ahead,” Lester said. “You can’t worry about other teams and what they’re doing.”

While the Cubs might not concern themselves with what’s below, the rest of the league must know the trend Maddon has established over the past decade: His teams play their best in the second half. For example, Maddon is 147-103 in the month of August since 2009 — when he realized playoff teams need more rest in games 1-162 than normal. He has that part of managing down to a science, so expect a fresh squad as the dog days approach.

“We still have a month and a half of baseball to battle through, then obviously September is the game changer,” Lester said.

Unless the week before the All-Star break already changed the game in the NL, as the Cubs flexed their muscle on the way to the top. Staying there is now the goal.

“It’s been fun so far,” Happ said. “These guys in here are super talented and super smart. They deserve all the credit.”

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