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Reaching the Apex - A Chicago Cubs preview

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A look ahead at our crosstown rivals

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the day after the disaster of a baseball game that featured the White Sox losing a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth, I flipped on the Cubs game as I waited for the White Sox to start.  They were locked in a close battle with the Mets as Jake Arrieta and Noah Syndergaard (with some help from the bullpens) pitched to a 1-1 draw over eight innings. The Mets scored one in the top of the ninth that temporarily deflated a lively sellout crowd at Wrigley, but man, was the bottom of the ninth exciting.

Jeurys Familia, the Mets' closer, didn't show up with much control. Walks to shortstop Addison Russell and catcher Miguel Montero brought Javier Baez to the plate, who bunted for some reason against a horribly wild pitcher. He wound up singling on the bunt to load the bases with no one out. The Cubs ultimately wound up failing to score, as utility man Matt Szczur bounced out to first and Kris Bryant hit into a game-ending double play.

However, the result wasn't what stuck out to me. What was remarkable about the game is that it took place on July 19, had little-to-no implications on the Cubs' already-excellent playoff chances, and the energy of the sellout crowd was off the charts. Wrigley was buzzing and loud. Russell's leadoff walk sounded like a walk-off home run. Every pitch of that inning felt like life or death. It might as well have been Game 7 of the NLCS.

Damn it.

The most passionate fans of any team receive every game with that level of excitement and importance, but speaking as one of them, the games become all the more special when the environment matches what you're feeling inside. Who wouldn't want a random July White Sox game to have the same feel as The Blackout Game? That's why so many of us flock to this website every day. We're all waiting for to recapture the feeling of a special team we last felt over a decade ago and we desperately want to know when that's going to happen again, so much so that we're eagerly consuming news and opinions daily that mostly have an infinitesimal impact on the timing. When I put it that way, it seems a little less crazy for some of us to cryogenically freeze ourselves with a note that says, "REVIVE DURING NEXT LEGITIMATE WHITE SOX PLAYOFF PUSH."

Some White Sox fans like the Cubs and others are indifferent to them. Many despise everything about them or choose to selectively hate the team, the fans, or Wrigley Field. Whether you're a hater or not, the combination of those three things has created an absolutely electric atmosphere this year. The on-field product has been exciting and has featured a core that's frustratingly likable; there's no longer a villain like Sammy Sosa or Carlos Zambrano to draw the ire (except for the extremely recently-acquired Aroldis Chapman). It's an intersection of great planning and great execution, and it's taking place ten miles north of a fan base that would eagerly settle for just one of those. If this sounds bitter, it's because it is.

There isn't much point in detailing step-by-step how the Cubs got to where they are now because anyone with a computer, radio, or newspaper who's remotely interested in baseball has it pretty well figured out. They sold off short-term assets, sucked for a few years partially on purpose, drafted great, then when the time was right, flexed their considerable financial muscle on Jon Lester, John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, and Jason Heyward. It was a blueprint rebuild that's worked so well that it's obscured the risk inherent in such a teardown to fans of other teams that are all too eager to beg for their team to copy the Cubs' formula.

This isn't to say that the 2016 Cubs season has been perfect. They're actually six games below .500 since their apex on June 19. Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist both played like MVP candidates for the first couple of months before cooling down and/or getting hurt. The starting rotation has similarly endured a rough patch. From June 3-13 and June 19-25, all five Cubs' starters had season-long ERAs under 3.00. All have faltered since then except groundballer Kyle Hendricks, who hasn't allowed an earned run in July. With everything else the Cubs have had going for them, Hendricks blossoming into a borderline ace-caliber pitcher has been equal parts unexpected and unfair. Lester, Arrieta, and Jason Hammel have had strong bounceback starts since the All-Star break, so it's possible the extra rest was the best cure for the early-July hiccups.

The biggest star of the show has been four-corners superstar Kris Bryant, who's cut his strikeout rate from last season to the point that you can't cite it as a weakness anymore. He hits for average and power, walks a lot, and can steal you a base every now and then. Bryant's partner-in-crime in the middle of the order, Anthony Rizzo, has actually been the better hitter, albeit one that doesn't offer Bryant's positional flexibility. Kyle Schwarber was supposed to complete the trio, but a devastating injury paved the way for prospect Wilson Contreras to become a fixture in the middle of the order, and he's done nothing but rake.

The complementary players have done their part to support the big boppers. Addison Russell has shown good pop for a middle infielder, but his calling card is his strong defense at short. Trade rumor regular Javier Baez is also a strong glove man and he's found regular playing time all over the Cubs' infield. The knock on Baez has long been his contact ability, but last season he made great strides in that department and his strikeout rate is now acceptable, especially given the whole package. Even bench guys like Szczur, David Ross, and Tommy La Stella have helped the Cubs to not miss a beat when the regulars were hurt or resting. This is how the wins have piled up despite Heyward, the $184 million marquee acquisition of the Cubs' offseason, playing with a nonexistent bat (.228/.318/.315).

*****

It's a foregone conclusion at this point that the Chicago Cubs will be playing October baseball. With such a strong core in tow, they're probably going to be doing a lot of that for the foreseeable future. But as Sosa, Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, and Kerry Wood might tell you, October baseball is one thing for Cubs fans and a championship is quite another. The Cubs figure to earn the rights to spin the playoff wheel a few more times now that Epstein's plan has come to fruition. If there's really a curse blocking the Cubs from winning a World Series, it's going to be strenuously tested over the next few years.

Projected Record and Finish: 99-63, first place NL Central

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Monday, July 25: Miguel Gonzalez vs. Jake Arrieta
  • Tuesday, July 26: James Shields vs. Kyle Hendricks
  • Wednesday, July 27: Jacob Turner vs. Jason Hammel
  • Thursday, July 28: Chris Sale vs. John Lackey

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Dexter Fowler - CF

SP1. Jake Arrieta - RHP

2. Kris Bryant - 3B

SP2. Jon Lester - LHP

3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B

SP3. Kyle Hendricks - RHP

4. Ben Zobrist - LF

SP4. John Lackey - RHP

5. Wilson Contreras - DH

SP5. Jason Hammel - RHP

6. Jason Heyward - RF

CL. Aroldis Chapman - LHP

7. Addison Russell - SS

RP1. Hector Rondon - RHP

8. Javier Baez - 2B

RP2. Travis Wood - LHP

9. Miguel Montero - C

RP3. Pedro Strop - RHP