By Bruce Levine —
CHICAGO (CBS) — The first half of the season is over for the Cubs and the other 29 teams that comprise the MLB.
If the playoffs started today, the Cubs would be without a ticket. They’re tied with the Cardinals for the sixth-best record in the National League, trailing the division-leading Brewers by 5.5 games at the break.
So what happened to the projections of another dominant season?
“We believe there is a lot more in the tank,” infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist said. “I believe there was a little fatigue going into the first half, in spring training and beyond. We hope we are getting past that point and ready to just turn the page.”
More than anything, the Cubs have been a disappointment to themselves.
“Of course, I didn’t anticipate this (43-45 record),” manager Joe Maddon said. “This is our reality. We deal with reality. We can’t deal with theory. Theory and reality are always a good thing when they come together. Our theory and reality have not met yet.
“We have to get back and play our game. We have to pitch better and take some innings off of our bullpen. We have to hit, especially with runners in scoring position. We do a great job on getting them on and working at-bats. The next thing we must do is make sure they score. There are specifics we can get better at that we have already talked about. Overall, the approach is good — the minds are shifting in the right direction.”
The page was hardly turned Sunday as the Cubs fell 14-3 to the Pirates at Wrigley Field.
Left-hander Jon Lester failed to get out of the first inning, surrendering 10 runs, four earned, while recording just two outs before leaving in a sloppy rudderless performance by the entire team.
The Cubs have much to prove in the second half. The Cubs’ starters have gone 29-33 with a 4.66 ERA as a unit.
Maddon had his annual mid-year meeting with his club last Thursday, and the Cubs have gone 1-3 since. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein addressed the media the same day, offering a terse reminder that the solutions the of team’s struggles lie within the 25-man roster assembled by himself and general manager Jed Hoyer.
“We have to execute our game,” Zobrist said. “We just have to play the game of baseball and not worry about the opponent. We can do a better job of that.”
The gauntlet has been thrown down in front of the Cubs, and the rest is up to them. On Friday, Maddon did confess for the first time in 2017 that the team hadn’t adjusted to losing lead-off man Dexter Fowler in free agency last offseason. Maddon also admitted that he underestimated how Kyle Schwarber’s inactivity in 2016, due to recovery from torn knee ligaments, would affect his return to form this season.
Maddon tried to find a silver lining in the disappointing first 88 games and the debacle Sunday.
“Right away Ian Happ has been a positive,” Maddon said. “We did not anticipate that. He stands right at the front of the line in positives. The bullpen overall has been really good. Wade (Davis) has anchored the back side. The bullpen has been wonderful, and I think it is getting better. Montgomery, as a starter, also has been fun to watch.
“We aren’t playing with the record we thought we would be at. However, guys show up. We keep playing. The group is still tight. The team meeting the other day, I was really impressed with that and their reaction to it. We did not push the guys too hard in the first half. Injuries have been a big part of that, also. My experience has shown me that the goal is to be really playing well in August and September. I do believe we are set up for that.”
Epstein and Hoyer will do their best to add some much-needed starting pitching to the mix. As the rotation has struggled, few have talked about the Cubs failing to replace the void left by Jason Hammel, who had 15 wins in 2016. Montgomery, Eddie Butler and Brett Anderson have gone a combined 7-11 this season in trying to fill the No. 5 slot in the rotation.
How will these accomplished Cubs respond to the second half?
“If you use the All-Star break wisely, you can certainly regroup,” outfielder Jason Heyward said. “You can definitely come back in the second half with the right mindset. We are going to find out real soon. You have to play the games. You must do it one day at a time, one series at a time. It will be more magnified in the second half then it was in the first.”
Like a lot of the Cubs players, Heyward refused to sum up the first half as its own entity.
“I will be disappointed if we are not playing in October,” Heyward said. “Right now, we are playing in meaningful games. That is the bottom line. We all have to do our job.”
The immediate job is to clear the head and get ready for the next 74 games, which will determine the 2017 season for the Chicago Cubs.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.