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The story of the Cubs team that came from 10 games under .500 to finish with a winning record

It might not happen this year. But it has happened before.

Ron Santo, who led the 1968 Cubs with 6.4 bWAR, which was fifth-best in the National League
Getty Images

The Cubs stand at 26-36 entering a series at San Francisco Friday evening, 10 games under .500. They were 12-7 after defeating the Dodgers 13-0 at Wrigley Field April 21. Since then the Cubs are 14-29, the worst record in the National League (though only 2½ games worse than the Mets, who are 16-26 in that span).

There is exactly one team in Cubs history who has gotten to 10 games under .500 and turned their season around to have a winning record. Note: I am not saying the 2023 Cubs can do this. But I did want to tell you the story of that ballclub.

A bit of background: In 1967, the Cubs came out of a 20-year slumber (just two non-losing seasons from 1947-66) to briefly contend and finish 87-74, their best winning percentage since 1945.

So there were high hopes for the 1968 version of the ballclub.

That Cubs team went “clunk” in a big way starting off the 1968 season. They lost seven of their first 10. After a bit of a run got them to .500 at 17-17, they muddled around .500 for a few weeks after that, finally getting over the .500 mark at 30-29.

That’s when the wheels fell off. The 1968 Cubs then lost 15 of their next 20 games. That included a streak of not scoring at all for 48 innings (I wrote about that here on its 50th anniversary in 2018), a streak that tied the MLB record (set in 1906!) and which still stands. (The Royals got close recently, 45 straight scoreless innings in 2017.)

After a shutout loss to the Pirates July 5 — the 14th time the Cubs had been shut out in only half a season — the team stood at 35-45, in ninth place in the 10-team National League, 15 games behind the first-place Cardinals. The promise of 1967 seemed dead.

They then won four in a row, lost one, won one, lost one, then won five in a row. A doubleheader sweep of the Dodgers July 28 put them a game over .500 at 52-51, 17 wins in 23 games. After a loss to the Giants July 29, the Cubs then reeled off 12 wins in their next 15 games to get to 64-55 August 13. They were still far behind the first-place Cardinals — 12 games out of first place — but had gone from ninth to second in the N.L. in the space of 39 games.

A six-game losing streak after that ended any hope of some sort of “Miracle Braves” type of comeback, and their September was just so-so at 13-11, but the 1968 Cubs finished the year with a four-game winning streak that included two walkoff wins to wrap the year at 84-78, the first time they’d had back-to-back winning seasons since 1945-46 and giving hope for 1969.

Well, you know what happened then. It should be noted that the 1968 Cubs went 35-46 in their first 81 games and 49-32 in their last 81. Then the 1969 Cubs were 53-28 over their first 81 games. That 102-60 record over a 162-game span has been exceeded by Cubs teams only twice — in 1984-85 and 2015-16.

If you think I’m using this as a comparison to where this year’s Cubs are... well, no. The 1968 Cubs had four future Hall of Famers and several other very good players. Their 35-45 record was a reflection of how, in the so-called “Year of the Pitcher,” they didn’t pitch well up to that time. Their 331 runs allowed in those 80 games was dead last in the National League. When they finally started to win over the final 82 games, it still wasn’t their pitching that did it — they wound up in the middle of the pack. It’s because they started to hit. They scored 331 runs in those 82 games, best in the league.

That’s what this year’s Cubs team would have to do in order to have any chance to get back to .500. The Cubs currently stand tied for 21st in runs scored (with the Phillies) at 264. They’re 12th in fewest runs allowed, 272, so their projected record is 30-32. That record would put them four games out of first place instead of their current 7½.

There are, of course, many more chances for teams to make the postseason than there were in 1968. The Cubs had the seventh-best record of the 20 teams in 1968, but of course only two teams, the league champions, advanced to the World Series then. Could this year’s Cubs get hot and sneak in as the champion of a weak division? Sure, but... they’d have to start hitting, and improve a bad bullpen. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

Just one other Cubs team has come from anywhere near 10 games under .500 to have a winning record. That’s the 2007 team, that was 22-31 after a loss to Atlanta June 2. They went 63-46 the rest of the way to win the N.L. Central with an 85-77 mark.

To get to 85-77, this year’s Cubs team would have to go 59-41. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

I continue to maintain that the 2023 Cubs are not as bad as they have looked the last few weeks. It’s time for them to start showing it.


How many games will the Cubs win in 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    90 or more
    (5 votes)
  • 3%
    (8 votes)
  • 17%
    (38 votes)
  • 34%
    (76 votes)
  • 31%
    (68 votes)
  • 10%
    Fewer than 70
    (23 votes)
218 votes total Vote Now