By Nate Johnson
Writing about the Chicago Cubs should be a snap. Whether the storyline is one of early season, wide-eyed excitement about the possibility of potential or the frustration of revisited failings, it seems that we have heard it all before. The first month of this season, however, might have moods pointing in a new direction.
A 2-1 series win over the Pittsburgh Pirates cemented the first winning opening month for the Cubs since 2008, which also marked their last trip to the postseason. Besides improving their April record of 9-16 in 2014 to 12-8 this year, several other measurables offer cause for optimism at the Friendly Confines. After going 0-79 when trailing into the ninth inning a year ago, Chicago has already struck with numerous late-inning comebacks this year. While a team cannot rely on last-minute heroics, the fact that they are staying in the game until the very end is a dramatic improvement over last year.
Another statistic that is pointing in the right direction is the marked improvement in team offense. While the headlines and billboards have gone to heralded rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, “grizzled veteran” Anthony Rizzo has been getting on base at a blazing pace, leading the way for this team to a .015 increase in team batting average and twice that in on-base percentage since this time last year, and the team is currently leading the National League in stolen bases, a huge turnaround for a team that was known more for its inefficiency on the basepaths a season ago.
With the good, however, must come the bad. Starting the month of May by dropping three of four to Milwaukee and St. Louis is tempering some of the excitement caused by the first month of the season. Scoring five runs in three games against the Brewers, who came into the series with the worst record in the National League (and on the verge of firing manager Ron Roenicke), was a disappointment after the strides the team had made at the plate.
An even bigger flaw was magnified during a 10-9 loss on May 4 during a prime-time matchup with the Cardinals. The Cubs were unable to make an early 5-run lead and one of the strongest offensive performances of the early season hold up as the bullpen, one of the few strengths of the team a year ago, was hit hard by the Cards. Injuries to relievers like Neil Ramirez have hurt for sure, but the normally staunch middle relief of 2014 has given way to a much weaker bridge to closer Hector Rondon.
Certainly, the positives at this point outweigh the negatives for a team that was only hoping to sneak back into the upper half of the National League this season. Aforementioned rookies Bryant and Russell have looked to be as advertised so far, and big-ticket free agent addition Jon Lester finally got into the win column as a Cub. Despite this month’s early struggles, a positive record after twenty-four games is a huge step in the right direction.
New manager Joe Maddon preaches winning one month at a time (eerily reminiscent of former Bears coach Lovie Smith hammering the need to win “all four quarters”?), and he has his first month under his belt. Here’s hoping for a few more.