By Matt Citak
The Chicago Cubs have been one of the strongest teams in the National League over the last three seasons.
The club’s accomplishments include a World Series title, three consecutive trips to the NLCS, two straight NL Central crowns, a Cy Young Award (Jake Arrieta), a Rookie of the Year Award (Kris Bryant), a Manager of the Year Award (Joe Maddon), and a Most Valuable Player Award (Bryant). The team has also won 292 games total in the last three seasons, averaging just over 97 wins per year.
So when the St. Louis Cardinals completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs on May 6, handing the storied franchise its fifth consecutive loss and dropping their record to 16-15, many people began to wonder what was going on in Chi-Town.
However since that day in St. Louis, Maddon has had his young Cubs squad playing amazing baseball.
Chicago has gone 17-8 since being swept by the Cardinals, raising their record to 33-23 on the season and putting them squarely back in the division race. Entering play on June 4, the Cubs find themselves two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, but tied in the loss column. In addition, Chicago has dominated play against the Brewers thus far, winning seven of the first eight meetings.
Unlike the first five weeks of the season, the Cubs have found a way to stay in almost every game since May 6. Of their eight losses during that span, six have come by two runs or less, while only one contest has ended in a margin larger than three.
So as we sit here 56 games into the 2018 season, the Cubs have to be very happy with the overall performance of the club this year.
Chicago entered play on June 4 tied with the Atlanta Braves for the most runs scored in the National League, despite playing three less games than Atlanta. The team’s .266 batting average matches the highest team average in all of Major League baseball, tying with the Boston Red Sox.
If that weren’t enough, the Cubs also lead all of MLB with a .347 on-base percentage, while the team’s .434 slugging percentage and .781 OPS rank first in the National League.
To put it simply, the Cubs have been dominating at the plate.
Chicago has been receiving production from the entire lineup. Javy Baez is off to the best start of his career, hitting 14 home runs and pacing the NL with 45 RBI. Meanwhile, Kris Bryant leads the team with 58 hits and a .400 OBP.
Even guys like Albert Almora Jr. and Tommy La Stella have found significant ways to contribute – the former leads Chicago’s starters with a .317 average, while the latter has been one of the best pinch hitters in baseball, hitting .333 mostly off the bench.
What’s even more impressive is the fact that the Cubs have been doing so well at the plate even though one of their best hitters has struggled throughout 2018. Anthony Rizzo is batting just .245 with 8 home runs and 38 RBI, yet the 2016 World Series Champions haven’t slowed down one bit.
While the offense has certainly played a large role in Chicago’s early-season success, the team’s pitching also deserves a ton of credit.
The Cubs’ pitchers have shined through the first 56 games of the year, as the staff’s 3.18 ERA and .217 batting average allowed both rank second in all of baseball and first in the National League.
It seems as if Jon Lester has turned back the clock and returned to his ace status. The 34-year-old is 6-2 with a 2.44 ERA and 1.16 WHIP through his first 12 starts of the season, while Kyle Hendricks has recorded a quality start in seven of his 11 outings.
But you cannot talk about the strong season Chicago’s pitching staff is enduring without mentioning the outstanding play from the bullpen.
Entering action on June 4, the Cubs rank second in bullpen ERA at 2.59, trailing only the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2.48 ERA. However the Chicago bullpen’s .200 batting average against and eight shutouts both lead all of Major League Baseball.
Brandon Morrow has been one of the most dominating closers in the league thus far, picking up saves in 14 of 15 opportunities. Through 20.1 innings, the right-hander has an amazing 0.89 ERA and 0.98 WHIP, striking out 21 batters while allowing just 13 hits and two runs.
But Morrow isn’t the only Cubs reliever finding a lot of success this year. Steve Cishek, Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop, Justin Wilson, and Carl Edwards Jr. all have ERA’s under 2.90, and have each pitched in at least 23 games.
While the bottom of the rotation still looks a little shaky due to the poor start from Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood, Joe Maddon has had the good fortunate of being able to rely on just about anyone out of the bullpen to record a big out. And chances are Quintana will get his season back on-track sooner rather than later, which should help take some pressure off of the bullpen.
With a lineup consisting of strong hitters from top-to-bottom, along with a solid starting rotation and one of the league’s best bullpens, the Cubs are in prime position to keep their season going well into October. And considering how mediocre the NL looks this year, that may be all Maddon needs to get his team back onto baseball’s biggest stage.
Who knows? After waiting over 100 years for a World Series title, Cubs fans may get the opportunity to celebrate the team’s second championship in the last three seasons come November.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.