Joe Maddon can understand and even appreciate the panic that set in around Chicago when the Cubs dropped 15 of their final 21 games heading into the All-Star break.
But the three-week freefall that turned the Cubs’ one-time 12 ½-game lead in the National League Central into just a seven-game cushion may have been a good thing – at least if you ask Maddon and Cubs’ President Theo Epstein.
The perfect storm of injuries and a grueling 24-day stretch when the Cubs were on the field all factored the Cubs going from being baseball’s best team to suddenly chasing the Giants and Nationals for the National League’s best record.
Even so, Maddon and Epstein certainly won’t argue with where the Cubs stand entering the season’s second half.
“It’s terms of the standings, it’s great to have a lead and it’s great to be where we are, but we certainly don’t feel like anything has been bestowed upon us,” Epstein said before Friday’s game with the Rangers at Wrigley Field. “We played poorly the past three weeks and we showed our humanity, our vulnerability as a team. But in the long run, that may be a good thing because we know how hard we have to work and how well we have to play to get where we want to go.”
The Cubs return from the break still missing lead-off hitter and centerfielder Dexter Fowler, who remains on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. Fowler ran on Thursday and will remain with the Cubs this weekend before starting another minor-league rehab assignment next week. Maddon said Fowler should re-join the Cubs by the end of next week.
Veteran catcher David Ross was expected to complete concussion protocol prior to Friday’s game. Outfielder Jorge Soler, who is also dealing with a hamstring injury, is also getting closer to a rehab assignment, but Maddon does not have a timeline for his return.
The injuries have allowed Maddon to give rookies Albert Almora, Jr., and Willson Contreras a chance to play. But with a younger lineup opened the doors for youthful mistakes to take place, which Maddon said contributed to some of the Cubs’ woes. But like Epstein, Maddon feels like the experience gained by some of the team’s young talent will pay off down the road.
“We got off to that wonderful start and then there’s really reasons maybe why we backed off a little bit prior to the break,” Maddon said Friday. “Now we’ve caught our breath, we’re still getting to look back to 100 percent well and we have a lot of confidence that we’re going to have another nice run going into this second half.”
First baseman Anthony Rizzo said even with the Cubs’ recent struggles, there’s no internal concerns they will continue. Rizzo, who was among the Cubs’ large All-Star contingent to San Diego, said before Friday’s game that the only panic that set in was among the media, who he claims turned negative over the past month when the Cubs went from 47-20 to 53-35.
Rizzo said the All-Star break came at a perfect time and that he’s not expecting any sort of second-half hangover.
“I don’t think anyone’s worried about us not playing well for an extended period of time,” Rizzo said Friday.
If anything, Epstein said that the Cubs’ recent stretch will serve as a reminder of what the Cubs need to accomplish in the second half. The schedule is certainly more favorable as the Cubs play 17 of their next 20 games within the city limits. The only true getaway is when the Cubs travel to Milwaukee next weekend before facing the White Sox in a home-and-home four-game stretch before closing out the homestand against the Mariners and Marlins.
Rizzo said the upcoming schedule should be beneficial in getting the Cubs back on track. Epstein agreed.
“There’s two sides – (there’s) a team that can accomplish anything and play outstanding baseball and be locked in day after day and then there’s the team that had some vulnerabilities,” Epstein said. “It took us a while to right the ship there – both extremes are possible. Now it’s up to us to go earn the path that we want.”
Follow me on Twitter @JeffArnold_.