Until the last three weeks, the Chicago Cubs were doing things no Cubs team had done in decades, if not a century.
We're all hoping those three weeks were just a bump in the road to a division title and beyond. In addition to the team's fine performance, many individual players were having first halves to remember.
Here's how I see those first halves. Remember, as in previous entries in this series, these letter grades are given subjectively, not on any sort of objective scale. They're my personal opinion, nothing more, nothing less.
Anthony Rizzo: A+ There's not much more you could ask from the man who's clearly the leader of this team in more than just statistical categories. He's leading the National League in OPS, is third in OBP and SLG, plays excellent defense, and is heading to his third straight All-Star Game. He is, of course, a potential MVP candidate.
Ben Zobrist: A He's cooled off since an amazing May in which he hit .406/.483/.653 with six home runs, but his overall numbers are his best since 2012 and he's played competently all over the field. An excellent addition to the ballclub.
Addison Russell: B He's hit for power (.402 SLG) and played solid defense, but struggles to get his BA above .240, and leads the team in strikeouts. Still only 22, he can improve on those things. His All-Star selection probably isn't justified (he likely wouldn't be on the team if he hadn't been elected in the fan voting), but it surely will be a great experience for him.
Kris Bryant: A+ Another MVP candidate, he's cut down on his strikeouts (down to 26.8 percent of his at-bats from 35.5 percent in 2015) without any sacrifice in power. He's leading the N.L. in home runs and is on pace for a 40-homer season, which would be the first for a Cub since Derrek Lee had 46 in 2005. He's also leading the league in runs and playing good defense all over the field.
Miguel Montero: D+ He's giving this team everything he has, I'm convinced of that. Unfortunately, at age 33 his skills are deteriorating. He's thrown out only four of 47 runners trying to steal and isn't hitting. I hope the break gives him the rest he seems to need and he'll come back and have a better second half.
Dexter Fowler: A Before the unfortunate hamstring injury, Dex was having an All-Star caliber season, enough to get him elected a starter on the N.L. squad. He won't play Tuesday due to the injury, and I think that's wise, giving him more time to rest so he'll be 100 percent when he does return. This team has really missed his offense over the time he's been out.
Jason Heyward: C+ And only for the defense, which has been stellar, as expected. Offensively he's shown almost no power and an annoying tendency to ground to second base. He has hit better since being dropped to the No. 6 spot in the batting order (.435/.519/.609, 10-for-23, no strikeouts), so I hope Joe Maddon leaves him there.
Javier Baez: B Javy's played amazing defense. Here's just one of his incredible plays.
Offensively, he's been a good contributor, hitting .273/.320/.454, and has even cut down on the strikeouts (24.4 percent of the time). His walkoff homer in extras against the Nationals on Mother's Day (pictured at the top of this post) is something we'll all remember for a long, long time.
I wish he'd walk more (only nine times). He needs to cut down on plays such as two he made Sunday: running through a stop sign at third base, and attempting a tag play when he could have had a fairly easy double play. The latter eventually allowed the tying run to score.
Tommy La Stella: B He's spent a fair amount of time on the DL, as he did last year, but has been an effective bench player when healthy.
David Ross: B+ He's played far better than anyone might have expected from a 39-year-old backup catcher. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, his .790 OPS would rank fourth among N.L. catchers, behind only the three who are on the All-Star team. His six homers hint he could get into double figures for the first time since 2007. His leadership has helped young players, and he's become a fan favorite.
Willson Contreras: B He's still a work in progress behind the plate, but has already shown the ability to be aggressive and have leadership qualities. His homer in his first big-league at-bat thrilled a Wrigley crowd and he's continued to hit well.
Matt Szczur: B Has done everything asked of him as a fourth or fifth outfielder, and provided some key hits off the bench.
Albert Almora Jr.: B Still doesn't walk much, but provides outstanding defense, pretty much as was advertised through his minor-league career. When Fowler returns, he's likely back to Iowa so he can play every day, but I'd expect him back in September.
Jorge Soler: D+ He had actually started to hit a bit (.346/.469/.615 with two home runs) in the 11 games before he went on the DL in early June. He's now missed 32 games and we've heard little about his possible return. Before that hot streak he had hit quite poorly all year.
Jake Arrieta: A- This would have been an A+ if not for his last three starts, in which he's posted an 8.27 (!) ERA and 1.776 WHIP. I don't think any of us would have expected Jake to keep up his amazing streak forever, but it would be nice if he pitched, say, better than that when the second half begins. Just to remember the good times, here are the last four outs of his April 21 no-hitter against the Reds:
Jon Lester: A- Lester was named N.L. Pitcher of the Month for June, but his July has been horrific: 13 earned runs in 4.1 innings (27.00 ERA), making his season ERA jump by almost a full run (2.03 to 3.01). He's allowed nine home runs in his last five starts, which is concerning. He'll likely throw an inning in the All-Star game, then rest till a week from Tuesday.
John Lackey: B- Lackey got off to a poor start, then ran off a string of 10 starts in which he posted a 1.97 ERA and 0.888 WHIP, before reverting to the mean over his last four. In reality, his season numbers are pretty close to his career line; I don't think we could have expected much more from a 37-year-old starter.
Kyle Hendricks: B+ Raise your hand if you thought Hendricks would have the best ERA among Cubs starters at the All-Star break. (Yes, it's true.) Over his last five appearances (four starts): 1.08 ERA, 25 strikeouts in 25 innings, this from a guy who rarely breaks 90 on radar. Repeat after me: "All he does is get guys out." He'll be the Cubs' first starter after the break.
Jason Hammel: B- Again, another good start spoiled by some poor recent performance (5.94 ERA over his last six starts, including that horrific five-homer outing in New York). Again, his overall numbers pretty much match what he's done in his overall Cubs career (65 starts). The Cubs might wind up looking for starting pitching help as well as relief help.
Hector Rondon: A- Has had a couple of bad blown saves recently, but in general has been very good. Among other things, he doesn't walk people: only four walks in 31 innings. Part of any problems he's had is the fact that the Cubs were winning so many blowouts early; Hector at times went several days without even pitching, much less getting a save opportunity.
Pedro Strop: B+ His overall numbers are similar to last year, except he's cut down on the walks (2.9 per nine innings compared to 3.8 in 2015), and his strikeouts are up (11.9 per nine, compared to 10.8 last year). Like Rondon, he went several days without pitching at times.
Travis Wood: B Recent outings have matched the team's struggles (7.11 ERA over his last eight appearances), but overall he's been solid.
Trevor Cahill: B Similar trajectory to Wood: recent outings have been bad (5.00 ERA over his last six appearances), but overall his numbers are decent. Too many walks, though (5.3 per nine innings).
Justin Grimm: C- I can never figure this guy out. Has a great arm. Throws hard. Should be a solid bullpen piece. And yet... too many walks (4.5 per nine innings), too many outings allowing multiple runs (three in June), poor overall numbers. He does have five straight scoreless appearances and struck out the side in Pittsburgh on Saturday, so maybe there's hope for the second half.
Adam Warren: C- Another guy issuing too many walks (4.7 per nine innings). And after a really solid five-inning start last Wednesday, he was awful on Saturday, though he probably came back too soon after throwing 93 pitches in the start. The Cubs need him to be better in the second half.
Spencer Patton: C- Has had some good outings, but enough bad ones that it's hard to give him a grade higher than this.
Carl Edwards Jr.: B+ Edwards has stepped up when needed. I still can't believe a guy that small and skinny can throw that hard, but as long as he can do it... why not? It seems as if Joe Maddon is grooming him for a more important bullpen role in the second half.
Chris Coghlan, Tim Federowicz, Jeimer Candelario, Ryan Kalish, Kyle Schwarber, Munenori Kawasaki, Clayton Richard, Neil Ramirez, Joel Peralta and Gerardo Concepcion also appeared in at least one game for the Cubs in the first half of this season.