The off day Thursday for the Cubs neatly divided the 2020 season in half. Thirty games have been played, 30 games remain.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that the Cardinals are the Cubs’ only real competition for first place. The Pirates helped the Cubs out Thursday by sweeping a doubleheader from St. Louis. After a 4-17 start in which they failed to win consecutive games and had three losing streaks of at least three games, Pittsburgh has now won five of their last seven. The Brewers and Reds are closer to last place than first place in the NL Central.
Here are the remaining schedules for the Cubs and Cardinals. Home games in boldface.
Cubs, 30 games (13 home, 17 road)
at Reds (4), at Pirates (3), Cardinals (5), Reds (3), at Brewers (3), Indians (2), Twins (3), at Pirates (4), at White Sox (3)
Cardinals, 36 games (15 home, 21 road)
Indians (3), at Reds (3), at Cubs (5), Twins (2), Tigers (2), Reds (3), at Brewers (4), at Pirates (5), at Royals (3), Brewers (5)
That is going to be a very daunting schedule for the Cardinals. The Cubs have two doubleheaders remaining, Friday at Cincinnati and September 5 at home against the Cardinals. St. Louis has seven, including three in five days from September 14-18.
There’s also a Cardinals/Tigers doubleheader that was postponed August 13 that has not been rescheduled. It will be played September 28 if the games mean anything for postseason position. Otherwise the Cardinals will play only 58 games this season.
Since they returned from their two-week hiatus, the Cardinals are 9-8. The Cubs are 14-10 in that same time frame.
The Cubs have accomplished their 18-12 record over this season’s first half while having only two hitters (Ian Happ and Jason Heyward) significantly outperforming their career norms. Everyone else is down, in some cases way down — Anthony Rizzo, for example, is hitting .216/.357/.382. His .739 OPS is more than 100 points below his career .859 OPS. Rizzo has had terrible starts to seasons before and gone on hot streaks. I would expect that to happen again.
I’m a bit more concerned about Javier Baez, who seems lost at the plate, although he is currently on a six-game hitting streak in which he’s hitting .348/.360/.652 (8-for-23) with two home runs. If he keeps that up he’ll be just fine.
The Cubs rank tied for seventh in the NL with 138 runs. They lead the league with 126 walks — in fact, if we were playing a 162-game season, the 4.2 walks per game would be a pace for 680, which would break the franchise record (656) set in 2016.
So the Cubs are getting on base well — their .334 OBP is fourth in the NL — but not scoring quite enough runs.
Pitching-wise, the starting rotation began the season as the best in the league, but recently Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks have been the only consistent starters. A good outing from Alec Mills in his last start gives hope for his future, and Jon Lester threw reasonably well in his last outing as well. The Cubs are going to need solid performances from those two, as well as a comeback from Jose Quintana, to continue to play .600 ball. The team ERA (4.55) ranks eighth in the league and their runs-allowed total (135) is seventh, both right around league average.
What isn’t league average is the bullpen — it’s been largely awful, with a couple of notable exceptions, Jeremy Jeffress and (sometimes) Dan Winkler. Craig Kimbrel seems to have righted his ship after a horrific start. Kimbrel’s last five outings: 4⅔ innings, no hits, no runs four walks, 11 strikeouts, 0.00 ERA, 0.857 WHIP. Overall, though, the Cubs bullpen ranks 29th in MLB in ERA at 5.79. Only the awful Phillies bullpen (7.52) is worse, and they made a trade to shake things up. The Cubs might have to do the same before Monday’s trading deadline, or find some help in South Bend, or both.
The schedule turns favorable for the Cubs after the Cardinals series in September; if they can maintain a lead like the current one after that, the teams don’t play again. The Cardinals have no off days and 23 games in the final 18 days of the season (and possibly 25 games in 19 days if they have to play that makeup doubleheader against the Tigers). In the same time frame, the Cubs have 16 games and two off days.