This series of revisited wins has skipped a lot of days — because after the Cubs beat the Reds at Wrigley July 4, they lost five in a row. Two of those were to the Reds, the only series they lost to them all year. One was a rainout-makeup game against the Braves, and then the Cubs lost the first two of this set in Pittsburgh and did not play well. Things were getting a bit nervous with the lead down to 6½ games.
This win settled things down a bit. The Cubs entered the All-Star break at 53-35 and with a seven-game lead in the N.L. Central.
2-0 lead in the first inning? Check. Blown lead in the second inning? Check. Come back to tie the game? Check.
But then Albert Almora Jr. slammed a two-run homer in the fourth that gave the Cubs a 5-4 lead:
The Cubs let the Bucs tie the game again, but Matt Szczur hit a pinch-double and scored on a Kris Bryant single in the eighth for the win, snapping a five-game losing streak (the season's longest) and sending most of the Cubs into the four-day All-Star break on a high note. Seven Cubs (six who could play, except for Dexter Fowler) will head to San Diego for All-Star festivities.
Anthony Rizzo is probably the hottest hitter in baseball right now. He had his second straight four-hit game and is now riding a nine-game hitting streak during which he's gone 16-for-37 (.432) with four doubles, a triple, two home runs and eight runs scored. Over the last two games he had hits in eight consecutive at-bats. One further Rizzo note:
#Cubs Rizzo was batting .238 on June 1. He's hitting .299 now— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) July 10, 2016
Addison Russell accounted for a pair of runs with a single; he had two hits in the game. Jason Heyward went 0-for-5, but got robbed at least once, and possibly twice, by Pirates fielders on line drives that might have gotten through. He's definitely starting to hit better.
John Lackey followed a pattern that he's often had this season, struggling in the early innings, then settling down and pitching into the seventh. In that inning he allowed a leadoff walk to Josh Bell (can anyone figure out how to get that guy out?), then a single to John Jaso before he had to be relieved by Pedro Strop. By then Lackey had thrown 113 pitches, and maybe he should have been lifted to start the frame.
Javier Baez inexplicably tried to chase Bell to second base instead of just going around the horn for a double play on a grounder by Starling Marte. If he'd done that, Andrew McCutchen's fly ball to right would have ended the inning, instead of scoring Bell, who had taken third. That tied the game, but Szczur and Bryant and good relief by Carl Edwards Jr. and Hector Rondon (14th save, and his first since June 24) won it. It was the first one-run win for the Cubs since June 18; they had lost by one run five times since then and overall are now just 11-14 in one-run affairs.
So the Cubs have ended this losing skid (hopefully for good), which reached 15 losses in 20 games following an incredible 47-20 start. Their current .603 winning percentage would lead to a 98-win season, not the 100+ wins they were on pace for before -- but still likely enough to win the N.L. Central. They will have to work hard to get there and harder to hold off the Giants and Nationals, and maybe other teams, to lock in the N.L.'s best record and home field throughout the N.L. playoffs.
This team has the talent to do it, and the break will be helpful to get injured players back, and give everyone else the time off to clear their heads and start up again Friday, this losing skein behind them.
But not only that, the break allows all of us to clear our heads. As fans, we reveled in the 47-20 start like nothing we had ever seen in our Cub fan lifetimes -- because almost literally, no living Cubs fan had ever seen it. To go from that, and the incredible record-setting performances of nearly everyone on the team, to a 5-15 streak in which almost literally everything that could go wrong did, is extremely difficult to watch. Let's all remember this is an incredibly talented team with good management that's had some injuries, some bad luck, and some regression to the mean that happens all the time in baseball. Relax, recharge, and get ready to go with the Cubs starting again Friday afternoon.
If the Cardinals hold on to their lead over the Brewers Sunday afternoon, they will move ahead of the Pirates into second place and the Cubs' lead will be seven games. If the Brewers can come back, the Cubs will lead the division by 7½ games and the Cardinals would stay in third place.
Here's how the Cubs rotation sets up for the beginning of the second half against the Rangers:
#Cubs rotation vs Rangers post break will be Hendricks, Hammel, Lackey— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) July 10, 2016
This will give Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester five and six days' rest after the All-Star Game, respectively, and set them up to pitch against the Mets at Wrigley. The Rangers have not yet announced their rotation for the Wrigley games.