Cubs bullpen making waves as offense wanes

By Nate Johnson
Columnist

In an oft-maddening up and down season for the Cubs, it seems a bit fitting that on a night where the duo of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were selected for the MLB All-Star Game on the merits of their offensive games, the team was held to six hits and has now scored fewer than two runs in 11 of their last 13 games. A 6-0 loss to the Cardinals brings their season record against their arch-rivals (and the team running away with the NL Central) to a lowly 2 wins and 8 losses.

After a stretch in which the team’s bullpen has been their strong point, leading the league in three key categories with a 1.52 ERA, a .188 batting average against, and 10 relief wins, Edwin Jackson had his worst outing of the season in giving up four runs in the ninth inning against the Cards on Monday. Even without the late collapse by Jackson, another strong outing from the team’s number one starter, Jon Lester (two hits, two earned runs and eight strikeouts in seven innings) was for naught as the Cubs managed only six hits against three St. Louis pitchers.

The series-opening loss against the Cardinals was not what the team could have been hoping for after a solid 5-1 stretch against the New York Mets and the Florida Marlins. The Cubs outscored the two NL East teams 19-5 over the six games, highlighted by Bryant exploding for two home runs (including his second grand slam of the season) and six RBI in the first two innings of the game against the Marlins on the Fourth of July.

The loss against the Cardinals leaves the Cubs still seven games over .500, a clear improvement from the teams of the last few seasons. The series-clinching win against Miami on Sunday was the team’s 44th of the year in their 80th game. Last year, the team hit the 44-win mark in their 105th game of the season. While the young position players such as Bryant, Rizzo and Addison Russell are helping with that improvement, the pitching overall has been a big part of that success. Besides the bullpen’s recent dominance, the starters have held their opponents under three runs in 11 of the last 16 games and the entire staff put up a 0.80 ERA with a 55/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the sets with New York and Miami.

Leading the pitching charge has been starter Jake Arrieta, who merited All-Star consideration after starting the year with an 8-5 record with a 2.77 ERA and 112 strikeouts. As it is, the Cubs will be very fairly represented at the Midsummer Classic in Cincinnati by their corner infielders. Rizzo, currently ranking in the National League top ten in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage and tied for the NL lead in doubles, will be playing in his second All-Star game after being voted in as the fans’ final vote last year while Bryant will be making the team in his rookie season thanks to 12 HR and 49 RBI so far despite not starting the season with the team.

After the four games against the Cardinals, the Cubs will close out the first half of the season with three games at Wrigley Field against the White Sox in the first leg of this year’s crosstown matchup. Challenging for the NL Central is a bit daunting at the moment given St. Louis’s dominance thus far, but fans would have to say that the chance for 50 wins by the All-Star break is a good sign for a team still mired in the midway stages of a long process.

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