Exciting times: Cubs getting healthy for end of year magic
David Banks - USA Today Sports
The Chicago Cubs have managed to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the National League Central this past weekend. After completing a 3-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley, the Cubs have distanced themselves from their longtime rivals. The Cubs have opened up a six-game lead on the Cardinals and with only 13 games remaining on the schedule making the chances of the Cardinals making any run at the division farfetched. The Cubs hold a four-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers and have lowered their magic number to 10. At this point in the season, it is vital for the Cubs to be able to put their best lineup on the field every day. For the first time in months, that could be a real possibility for the Cubs.
The Cubs have struggled with injuries for the majority of the 2017 season. Every starting pitcher in the starting rotation has been placed on the disabled list at some point this season. Key position players have also missed time this year for various amounts of time, including Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Willson Contreras, and most recently injured was young shortstop Addison Russell. The Cubs have managed not to be derailed by injury, but instead still hold onto a coveted playoff spot.
Injuries are always a major factor for any team which wants to contend for a championship. Last year the Cubs were extremely fortunate in keeping the majority of their lineup healthy. The only significant injury the Cubs faced last year was the ACL injury to Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber was lost following an outfield collision only four games into the season. The bright side was it happened so early in the season that the Cubs had plenty of time to adjust their lineup to fill the void Schwarber left. Injuries that occur later in the season and don’t give teams time to adjust to the loss of a player can sink a team’s World Series aspirations. The 2016 Cubs were the exception, not the rule. In 2017 they have faced far more adversity, particularly with the pitching staff. The staff has been banged up all year and forced the Cubs to patch together the rotation, mostly on the fly. Mike Montgomery has been a key for them, as he has been able to fill several different roles. Montgomery has been productive both starting games and coming out of the bullpen. Other players as well have been forced to step up this season, bringing light to the Cubs philosophy of organizational depth. The Cubs have put a priority on having depth at all positions and versatility. They have succeeded in that they have several players who can fill in and keep the team performing well enough to get into October. Despite having the depth to get into the playoffs, the Cubs will require a healthy lineup to have a chance to repeat as champions.
The excellent news is, things are starting to look up for the Cubs. They are finally getting to point where they can put out a lineup similar to the one they played on opening day. The pitching staff is starting to return to form, and Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks are pitching much better after coming back from their injuries. The injuries to the rotation are to be expected as the starters have thrown considerably more innings than they normally would, following two deep playoff runs. The strain on the starters is one of the key factors which attracted the Cubs to Jose Quintana. Quintana is one of only a few pitchers to make at least 30 starts in each of the last five seasons.
The rotation is pitching well and healing up at the right time. Hendricks looked like his old self in the last start facing the Cardinals, going eight strong innings while allowing only one run. Hendricks has looked healthy and close to the Cy Young contender he was last season. Now the rotation only waits on Jake Arrieta to get right. Arrieta has been dominant in the second half of the season, and if the Cubs can get that back, their rotation will look very capable going into October. With a healthy starting rotation, the Cubs will still be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
The Cubs are starting to see an impact from position players they have returning as well. The Cubs have recently got Willson Contreras back. Contreras had arguably been the Cubs best player until his recent DL stint. If he comes back anything close to as strong as he was before his injury, he will add much-needed support hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. This weekend also saw the return of Addison Russell. The young shortstop put the exclamation point on the series by hitting a pinch-hit home run in his first at-bat since August 2nd. Russell has reached base in every at-bat since he came back from his injury. Russell has had a trying year to this point but still has the potential to be a huge part of this team from here on out. As good as Javier Baez at shortstop, the Cubs infield is at its best when Russell plays shortstop and Baez moves over to second as this gives the Cubs a stellar double-play combination and does not allow many base hits up the middle of the diamond. Having Russell back also creates some more length in the lineup as Russell and Baez together allow for some power bats at the bottom of the order, making the Cubs lineup even harder for an opposing pitcher to navigate.
It has been a challenging year for the Cubs at times, filled with adversity and trips to the disabled list. However, The Cubs are getting healthy at the right time. With only a couple weeks until October, the Cubs are getting players back and loading up for their run. As they get healthy and recharge some batteries, the Cubs are looking to find some end of the year magic.
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, Jason Heyward
, Ben Zobrist
, Willson Contreras
, Addison Russell
, Kyle Schwarber
, Mike Montgomery
, Jon Lester
, Kyle Hendricks
, Jake Arrieta
, Anthony Rizzo