By Nate Johnson
One season ago, dropping a game in which the Cubs were held to three hits and struck out 18 times would have resulted in a communal shrugging, writing the loss off as standard operating procedure for a team that would end up holding down last place in their division, 16 games under .500. This year, such a loss is again shrugged off, but for very different reasons.
Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the White Sox, in which Chris Sale was nearly untouchable against a lineup that had averaged 4.9 runs per game over their previous 20 outings, ended a nine-game winning streak for the Cubs and was only their second loss over the 17 games. The streak was the longest for the Cubs since 2008 and helped stake the team to a four-game lead for the second National League wild card spot.
Continued improvement from the bullpen, an area that had been a cause for concern at times earlier in the year, has been a big part of this strong run for the Northsiders. The relief corps has not given up an earned run in their last 23.2 innings, while holding opponents to a .157 batting average and striking out nearly six times as many hitters as they have walked. With his 20th save of the season, it appears that Hector Rondon has nailed down the closing spot, a position that had been handled by committee for most of the year.
And the bats have continued to stay hot in August. Kris Bryant has posted a .319/.439/.511 slash line this month; Dexter Fowler is getting on base at a .368 clip despite a declining batting average; and Anthony Rizzo has shed his late-July funk, hitting .362 with four home runs. The Cubs’ offense, a point of concern heading into the trade deadline, has corrected itself in just a few weeks.
The seven-game homestand this week sees Chicago face three teams who combine to sit 24 games under .500 in the Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves and a rain-out make-up with the Cleveland Indians. While no match-up is ever guaranteed to be easy, a seven-game diet of underperforming teams is a pleasant sight before heading out west to face two teams that they could match up with in the postseason (knock on wood), the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants.