By Bruce Levine

By Bruce Levine–

CHICAGO (CBS) — In their first 88 games, the Cubs were woeful by their lofty standards. At the All-Star break, they sat at 43-45 and trailed the Brewers by 5.5 games in the NL Central.

It all changed from there. Chicago went 49-25 in the second half. So how did the transformation take place? Manager Joe Maddon traced it back primarily to the team’s starting pitching. The Cubs starting rotation had 35 wins and a 3.38 ERA in the second half, both marks that were best in the big leagues.

The Cubs went on a 14-4 tear coming out of the All-Star break, caught the slumping Brewers by late July and never surrendered the top spot in the division after that. The turnaround was surprising in how suddenly it occurred.

“For me, it was about not pushing the group too hard too early,” Maddon said. “Retrospectively, I am trying to learn lessons all of the time. The fact to not being too concerned too early, about the lack of performance is understanding coming off of two (long) years and letting it play out. After that, it was the pitching setting the tone.”

Sparked by an often-dominant offense as well, the Cubs registered a plus-127 run differential in the second half. Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez took turns with hot stretches, while the ever consistent Anthony Rizzo led the charge. The Cubs put up double-digit runs eight times in the second half.

Relying on Jon Jay as a lead-off hitter more often also helped turn it around after a dysfunctional first half. After the Kyle Schwarber experiment ended at lead-off, Jay stepped in with quality at-bats.

“Jon is an acquired taste,” Maddon said. “If you get by the OPS factor, you have a player that helps you win ballgames every day.”

Throughout their first-half struggles, the Cubs maintained a conviction that they’d hit their stride. Their confidence stemmed from having largely the same group that won the World Series in 2016. Once they shook the cobwebs from their championship run, the Cubs found their form marked by diligence and talent.

Now, the Nationals await in the National League Division Series, with Game 1 in Washington D.C. on Friday. The Cubs want to prove they’re again the best and showcase their second-half form on the big stage.

“Our goal every year is to win the division,” Rizzo said. “That is why we play a 162-game season. The cream always rises to the top. I am a big believer in that. Here we are.”

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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