There aren’t a lot of things more fun than watching a star player trying to will his team into contention. There is no question that Cody Bellinger is feeling it this month. I detailed his stats just yesterday. Regardless if you saw those numbers or not, you undoubtedly have seen somewhere that Cody now has 32 hits in July, tops among big leaguers. From our little perspective here in Heroes and Goats, he has racked up 24 points here in July. There have only been 18 games. He started this month near the bottom of the list and he needs exactly one more reasonably good game to take over first place. I’ve never kept records in such a way as to have a strong reference, but I can safely say this has been one of the strongest, if not the strongest, months in Heroes and Goats history.
For the Cubs, they were 38-42 entering July. 9-9 doesn’t feel remarkable. But if you peel back the layers, the team has been competing for a while. When they left Anaheim on June 8, this team was 26-36. That is a 21-15 mark since that day. That works out to a 94.5 win pace. That’s over almost a quarter of a season. That is why Jed Hoyer looks at a team four games under .500, in third place in its division and six games out of a wild card berth and isn’t sure if he should be selling.
Lord knows I’ve been as skeptical as anyone about this team getting back into contention. Some of you have surely gotten tired of me being pessimistic about it. Without a doubt, it’s not great being in the seventh team competing for four spots. At some point, there is a math that happens wherein some of the teams have to be winning and so it is hard to make up ground. Also, of the six teams in front of them for those three spots, there’s a whole lot of losing going on. The Diamondbacks have dropped three straight. The Giants four straight. The Phillies four straight. The Marlins eight straight.
The Cubs passed the Mets this weekend and distanced themselves from the Cardinals with a pair of wins the last two days. The effect of that is to make it a little less frustrating that the Reds have straightened things out again and have now won four straight. I’ve long had a thing about sports and coming from back in the pack. People focus a lot on the math. I get that. The math can be daunting. For me though, it’s a different question. The Cubs have won 21 of 36. For me, the question is, can they do it again?
That’s the real question. It would be disingenuous for me to suddenly be convinced that they could. I’ve been skeptical throughout. Certainly, taking four of the last five from the Nationals and Cardinals can’t be what changes my impression. Fast forward 36 more games. That would take us down to 28 games left in the season. If the Cubs were sitting there at 68-66, we’d certainly have something to talk about.
Right now today, the Reds hold the last wild card slot. They have won 54 percent of their games. Never mind the blistering pace they’ve played at for the last month or so. Their season pace would be an 88-win pace. That’s a reasonable line for the last playoff spot. Be that the Reds or the Reds continuing to ascend but one of the Diamondbacks or Giants fading when the reality of three very good teams out west comes together.
That means, the Cubs need to do that 21-15 stretch again. Then, they’ll have to win 20 of 28 after that. That’s how the math gets daunting. When you are sitting four under and need to finish 14 over, you need to find a way to finish your season 18 over for the last 64 games. After playing the 36 in front of that at six over. That feels daunting. But again, 21-15 is almost a 95-win pace.
That math does feel just too much. The instinct says that they just dug too large of a hole. That they just have too much ground to make up and not enough time. That we need to be starting to contort ourselves with various scenarios where the last spot falls short of 88 wins. Resist that temptation. Aim for the sky. If you think the last 36 aren’t a fluke, then you send out your positive energy. Maybe, the Cubs can keep the pressure on over the next eight days and keep the front office from selling.
IF the team can stay in contention. As much as I rely on math, believe in math, there is a uniquely baseball phenomenon that can play out. I haven’t looked at the September schedule and I won’t. It’s too soon and there are too many variables But, as July transitions to August and August to September, some times pull up in the reins. One by one, the also rans start shutting guys with nagging injuries down. They start looking at pitchers who have thrown more innings than they ever have before and shut them down. They start looking at minor league players.
2015 is the clearest and most memorable example in recent Cubs history of a team that just starting piling on wins down the stretch. A team that was decent ended up being exceptional down the stretch. Without going back and crunching numbers, I’m certain that one of the best stretches of baseball played by the championship era Cubs was late in 2015. To be sure, the first stretch of baseball in 2016 has to have been the absolute best. But off the top of my head, late 2015 was probably second best. I don’t particularly think the 2015 Cubs were the second best group over time. But they got hot and just started piling on.
It can happen. Will it? I know much was made at the break of the Cubs having an extremely soft second half schedule. Make no mistake, this week and next was a big chunk of that. The Nationals, Cardinals and White Sox have all been among the worst teams in baseball this year. The time is now. Would we have all loved another win or two over the last six? Of course. But, if the Cubs can win on Sunday, five wins in a seven-game week, even at home and even against two bad teams, it’s pretty good. For everything the Cardinals aren’t this year, they are still a team that came in playing probably its best baseball of 2023 and you just beat them two straight. I still think you really need it to be three.
Nothing to fret there. Just the Jameson Taillon problem. We just talked yesterday again about how much trouble the Cubs have had with that spot in the rotation. Spoiler alert, if this team is going to get back in the hunt, they are going to need one of Jameson and Drew Smyly to get going. Maybe Hayden Wesneski can come back and fill the other spot. But they’ve got to have five starters who give them a shot to win every day. You’re never going to win them all, you just can’t be destined to lose two out of every five. It just doesn’t leave you any margin of error at all. They found a way to win on Smyly’s day. Now they have to find a way to do it on Taillon’s day.
But first, let’s break this one down. We start with three positive performances.
- With all due respect to two Cubs with three-hit games, the top spot goes to Cody Bellinger. He had two singles in five at bats Saturday. That feels fairly mundane, right? He drove in four of the eight runs.
- It gets tough after that. There are two many key contributors and not enough spots. From the run producer, I turn to the key table setter. Ian Happ had a single, a double, two walks and three runs scored. We’d all love a hulking 40-homer left fielder who anchors the middle of the lineup. Do not sleep on a guy with a .373 on base percentage. When Saturday’s action is completed, he’ll either be in the top 15 in baseball or just outside of it. His defense and base running are probably both down just a bit, holding back his fWAR a little bit, but he’s still providing a lot of value.
- There are a few more guys on each side of the offensive equation, table setter and run producers, that had good games. But I’m going to tip my cap to Julian Merryweather. I’ve talked about his July struggles. With increased winning comes an increased workload for the “A” relievers. He hadn’t worked consecutive games since the last two days of May against the Rays. But he’s now worked in two straight, three of four and four of six. He responded with three up three down, facing the five through seven hitters in the Cardinals lineup. The Cardinals had scored in the third, fifth and sixth innings and Julian stopped the momentum.
Game 98, July 22: Cubs 8, Cardinals 6 (47-51)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Cody Bellinger (.280). 2-5, 4 RBI
- Hero: Ian Happ (.248). 2-3, 2B, 2 BB, 3 R, K
- Sidekick: Nico Hoerner (.169). 3-4, 2B, BB, 3 R, SB
- Billy Goat: Drew Smyly (-.298). 3⅔ IP, 19 batters, 6 H, BB, 5 R (4 ER), 5 K
- Goat: Daniel Palencia (-.149). ⅓ IP, 3 batters, 2 BB, 2 WP
- Kid: Yan Gomes (-.096). 1-5, K
WPA Play of the Game: Cody Bellinger batted with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning, the Cubs down one. The run expectancy after bases loaded with one out is 1.57 runs. Cody accomplished two runs with one swing, delivering a single and putting the Cubs in front to stay. (.247)
*Cardinals Play of the Game: The game was tied when Nolan Gorman stepped in against Drew Smyly with two outs and the bases empty in the fifth inning. There is almost no expectancy of scoring after bases empty with two outs, but a solo homer took care of that in a hurry and gave the Cardinals the lead back. (.153)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Julian Merryweather (IP, 3 batters, 2 K)
Dansby Swanson (2-4, 2B, HBP, RBI, R)
Adbert Alzolay (IP, 4 batters, H, 2 K, SV)
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Yesterday’s Winner: Cody Bellinger (Superhero is 66-31)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 5/Bottom 5)
- Marcus Stroman +18
- Ian Happ +17.5
- Cody Bellinger +17
- Mike Tauchman +14
- Justin Steele +12
- Michael Fulmer/Drew Smyly -9
- Julian Merryweather -12.5
- Patrick Wisdom -13
- Jameson Taillon -17
- Trey Mancini -20
Up Next: The finale of the four game series. The Cubs can win it three games to one or split, two apiece. Jameson Taillon (3-6, 6.05, 77⅓ IP) gets the start for the Cubs. He’s shown some improvement over his last seven at 2-3, 5.13 ERA in 40⅓ innings. But, an awful lot of that was one start in the Bronx against the Yankees just before the break. He was one of the key offseason acquisitions and as I said near the top of this, it’s hard to imagine them getting back into the race without him. He’s had one start this year against the Cardinals and it wasn’t good. He only recorded eight outs while allowing five hits, two walks and four runs.
The Cardinals counter with 30-year-old lefty Jordan Montgomery (6-7, 3.14, 109 IP). He’s really been dominant, going 4-0 with a 1.47 ERA over his last seven starts, covering 43 innings. The Cubs have been very good against lefty starters and they are going to have to be. They were back on May 10, when the Cubs scored six runs on seven hits in five innings of work against him. Montgomery took the loss that day. Patrick Wisdom and Yan Gomes each homered in that one. That was part of a three-hit game for Gomes who was one of five Cubs with multiple hits in the game.