You remember, surely, the 5-15 stretch in late June and early July. But that was only part of a long stretch of .500 baseball. (And that 5-15 run included seven games in which the pitching staff allowed at least eight runs.)
The Cubs were 25-6 on May 10, 2016 and then got swept in a doubleheader at Wrigley Field — coincidentally, by the Padres, the team that just swept them out of San Diego. That was the team’s first time losing consecutive games in 2016.
It was also the beginning of a stretch in which the Cubs went 27-29. Sound familiar? That put them at 52-35 at the end of that 5-15 run. It’s just that they had run out to such a big division lead, at one point in June leading by 11 games, that no one really noticed a two-month stretch of play very similar to the 25-27 mark they have now.
Len Kasper touched on this during the broadcast Wednesday, noting that things like this are all a matter of perspective. On May 4 the Cubs were 16-12 and led the N.L. Central by 1½ games. Since then they’re 9-15 and people are ready to press the panic button.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Blue Jays, another 2016 postseason team, got off to the worst start in franchise history at 6-17, and that’s saying something considering they were an expansion team. They were 10½ games out of first place as recently as May 9.
But since that 6-17 start the Jays are 20-10 and have picked up five games on the division lead and people are saying they’ve righted the ship.
Cubs: 25-27, 2½ games out of first place = panic!
Jays: 26-27, 5½ games out of first place = excitement!
Neither one of those is a reasonable position to take. Both teams have talent and both teams should contend for division titles by the end of this season, which still has well over 100 games to go.
This year’s N.L. Central race is reminding me of the 1996 race, a year in which the division was termed by some the “Comedy Central.”
Why? On May 13, 1996, the Cubs defeated the Astros 6-0 to move into a first-place tie. Okay, that sort of thing happens all the time... except not usually when your record is 18-20. That’s right, every team in the N.L. Central was under .500 on that May day.
The ‘96 Cubs stumbled around for more than a month after that, but when they beat the Dodgers 6-4 on June 26 to move to within two games of first place, they were still under .500 at 37-40. The first-place Astros were all of one game over .500 at 40-39.
It took until September for the Cardinals, who were clearly the best team in the division that year, to take charge with a 17-9 month. Even so, the Cubs were still in marginal contention, 74-72 and five games out with 16 remaining, until they lost 14 of their last 16 (!) to finish fourth. Meanwhile, the Cardinals went 88-74 and the N.L. Central title by six games. Then they swept the Padres in their division series and took the Braves to Game 7 of the NLCS before losing.
Point is, this sort of thing happens all the time. Here’s another example: In 2005, the Astros came to Wrigley Field to face the Cubs in late May. The Cubs took two of three and I remember thinking at the time that Houston was the worst team in baseball. They were 16-30 when they finished that series. They went 73-43 (.629) the rest of the way and got to the World Series.
And there’s one even more recent example of a good team floundering for a big chunk of a season and still making the postseason easily. On June 21, 2013, the Dodgers lost to the Padres to go to a 30-42 record. They were last in the N.L. West, 9½ games out of first place.
Then they started winning. And winning. And winning some more. For the rest of the year they went 62-28, a .689 winning percentage, finishing at 92-70 and winning their division by 11 games.
A .689 winning percentage for 96 games. That’s really good! I mean, no Cubs team could ever...
Except they did, for nearly half a season... just one year ago. After that 5-15 stretch the 2016 Cubs went 51-23 for the rest of the year. That’s a winning percentage of... .689.
The 2017 Cubs have too much talent to keep playing the way they have. We got used to seeing winning that appeared almost too easy in 2016. Pennant races don’t always work that way. Sometimes even good teams start with mediocre or bad stretches of play, just like this year’s Cubs.
I still believe this team will come back and win the N.L. Central easily. They might have to make some changes or trades before doing so, but they’re too good to keep playing this way for too much longer.