If you didn’t stay up late Monday and haven’t checked the West Coast baseball scores yet, the Cubs awakened Tuesday morning in first place in the NL Central, taking over the top spot when the Cardinals lost 9-4 to the Dodgers.
But it’s not just another team losing that has brought the Cubs to first place for the first time since April 5.
It’s winning. The Cubs went 19-8 in May, and you might not realize just how good that is for a calendar month in franchise history.
Since 1945, that is just the 17th calendar month (including a couple of “months” in which a handful of October games were included) where the Cubs have won at least 19 games.
Here’s the entire list:
Just to be thorough here, the Cubs’ record in October in the four “Sept/Oct” listings above:
Thus, in two of those four years (2015 and 2017) the Cubs won 19 games in one calendar month (September).
Now, let’s look a bit deeper into these numbers.
There are now 15 seasons in which this has happened; in two of those years (1977 and 2015) the Cubs accomplished this feat twice. Of the previous 14 seasons, the Cubs finished with winning records in 12 of them, failing only in 1977 (81-81, .500) and 1955 (72-81). There are six playoff seasons in the list (1984, 1998, 2008, 2015, 2016 and 2017). The 1955 Cubs flopped with a horrific July (10-22). I’ll get to the 1977 season a bit later.
Thus it seems very likely that playing this well for a calendar month should, at the very least, assure the 2021 Cubs of a winning season and very likely a postseason spot.
They have accomplished this with a ballclub that currently has eight (!) players who were not on the Opening Day roster: pitchers Tommy Nance, Kohl Stewart and Keegan Thompson, and position players P.J. Higgins, Sergio Alcantara, Patrick Wisdom, Nick Martini and Rafael Ortega. Many of those players have made significant contributions to the recent run of victories.
Further, they are following a formula that often results in a postseason berth: Having an excellent winning percentage at home and playing about break-even on the road. The Cubs’ 19-10 home mark is a .655 winning percentage which would equate to 53 wins at home. After a terrible 4-12 start on the road, the Cubs have won seven of their last eight games away from Wrigley Field. If they can play .500 ball on the road, winning 53 games at home would produce a 93- or 94-win regular season.
They have also played well against contending teams. The Cubs are 11-9 (.550) against teams currently over .500, and 19-14 (.576) against teams currently under. 500. The team’s overall current winning percentage of .566 equates to a 92-win regular season.
The cautionary tale here is the 1977 season. The ‘77 Cubs followed their 19-8 May with a 21-7 June. That 40-15 run is the best 55-game stretch in recent franchise history — yes, better than the 2016 World Series champions, whose best 55-game stretch was 39-16.
I’ve told this story before, but if you’ve missed it: On June 28, 1977, the Cubs beat the Expos 4-2 in 10 innings in Montreal. In those days not all Cubs road games were televised; that one wasn’t, so I was listening to it on WGN radio. The win put the Cubs at 47-22, 25 games over .500. They had an 8½-game lead in the NL East. During the postgame show, broadcaster Lou Boudreau said, enthusiastically, “They can kiss the .500 mark goodbye!”
Of course, that’s the joke. The 1977 Cubs finished 81-81, exactly .500 — and had to lose their last five games to do that.
The reality was that the ‘77 Cubs weren’t as good as they played in May and June of that year. They really didn’t have enough talent to contend for as long as they did. The 2021 Cubs do have that sort of talent — and a lot of it is currently on the injured list. For this year’s Cubs to have had the May they did while playing guys who were the “break glass in case of emergency” players at Triple-A Iowa is remarkable. The Cubs had that “emergency” and the Iowa Shuttle guys stepped up.
It’s a month you should all remember for a very long time, one of the best we’ve seen. And when this team is back at full strength, hopefully soon, I believe the winning can and will continue.