Monday, July 10, 2017
Cubs seeking answers after erratic start to season
LOS ANGELES -- The Chicago Cubs' curse-busting World Series win is a distant memory as the Major League Baseball champions limp into the All-Star break.
The Cubs won their first title since 1908 -- ending the longest sports title drought in American History -- with their win over the Cleveland Indians in last year's Fall Classic.
But predictions that their core of 20-something stars were just getting started have been sorely tested in the first half of the 2017 season.
The Cubs went into the 2016 All-Star break at 53-35 on their way to a 100-win season that never saw them drop below .500.
So far this year they've flailed around the .500 mark, and trail the surprising Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central race by 5.5 games.
"This year's just been kind of weird for all of us," National League Most Valuable Player Kris Bryant acknowledged. The Cubs are 43-45 as Major League Baseball takes it's mid-season break for Tuesday's All-Star Game in Miami.
After Bryant lost out to the Dodgers' Justin Turner in final voting, the Cubs are the first World Series winners not to send a returning player to the All-Star Game.
Maybe Bryant could benefit from the time off.
Last year the Cubs third baseman had 25 home runs, 65 RBI and a .962 on base plus slugging by the break.
This season he's at 18, 38 and .928 -- although Bryant insists he doesn't feel fatigued and the ankle he sprained in June is fine.
Bryant showed a flash of brilliance on Friday, going 4-for-5 with two homers a triple and a single in the Cubs' 6-1 win over Pittsburgh.
But the Pirates won the next two games of the weekend series, pummelling the Cubs 14-3 on Sunday to conclude the first half of the season.
Bryant says the Cubs remain confident they can turn things around in the second half of the season -- thanks in large part to their rally from 1-3 down in the World Series.
"We can do it," he said. "That's what makes us so confident."
And manager Joe Maddon said he still sees "a chance for us to do something really spectacular" in the second half.
"I'm very pleased with where we're at right now," Maddon said at the weekend. "We have gone through a lot of different moments already this season regarding injuries, etc., and we've held our heads up pretty good."
The Cubs offense stands to benefit from the returns of Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward from the disabled list.
And the team is hoping slugger Kyle Schwarber's spell in the minor leagues was enough to sort out his hitting slump.
But they also need to perk up their pitching.
Ace Jon Lester endured the shortest outing of his career on Sunday when he gave up four earned runs and six hits before departing in the first inning against the Pirates on Sunday.
Hurler Jake Arrieta, who had 121 strikeouts and an earned run average of 2.68 in the first half last season, has 201 this year and an ERA of 4.35.
"It's been slightly different honestly, just because we've been up and down so frequently," Arrieta said.
"As soon as we get on a roll, we kind of hit a skid. It's just been this back and forth, sort of, roller-coaster that we've been dealing with."
The Cubs certainly aren't the first World Series winners to experience a title hangover -- as much as they dislike that characterization.
The last team to repeat as World Series champions was the New York Yankees, who did it in 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Toronto Blue Jays did it in 1992 and 1993, but before that it was the Yankees in 1977-78.
Maddon said it wasn't time to hit the panic button.
"I'm still very confident. I believe in our guys," Maddon said. "I'm eager to see us coming out of the break."