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Cubs get back to work — and there’s lots of work to do

Anthony Rizzo (right) and Kris Bryant are on the short list of midseason candidates for National League MVP.

In the summer and early spring of 1973, the Watergate scandal heated up, Secretariat chased the Triple Crown, a long-awaited edifice called the Sears Tower kept rising higher and higher, and — for 113 consecutive days — the Cubs sat atop their division.

We don’t have to tell you how that last one turned out, do we?

Look out below — undone by a 5-27 stretch, the Cubs finished in fifth place in the six-team N.L. East.

What does that have to do with the 2016 Cubs? Probably nothing. Call it a simple reminder that the first half of the season isn’t always what it seems.

Take 2015, for a better example, when the Yankees led the A.L. East and the Angels led the A.L. West at the All-Star break. Each team cratered in the second half, finishing third in its division and out of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays answered a sub-.500 first half with a 48-23 romp through the second half. You’ll recall that the Cubs got similarly hot — 50-25 — after the break.

Again, the first half tells us only so much. So what to make of these Cubs as they embark on the second half and draw closer to perhaps the most anticipated October in the history of the franchise?

They’re on pace for 97 or 98 victories. That’s good, right? Yet somehow, it feels just a bit empty. Not quite four weeks ago, the Cubs were 47-20 and, with a brilliant winning percentage of .701, on pace for 113 or 114 victories. Since then, they’ve dropped 15 of 23 games and fallen behind the Giants and Nationals in the overall N.L. standings.

Even the most wide-eyed Cubs fans have to admit there’s some cause for concern. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows among the things we’ll be looking for as the second half gets underway.

The July swoon: Anyone who watched the Cubs closely in April, May and June would have a hard time believing the team’s 7.45 ERA through 10 games this month. It’s the N.L.’s worst by an enormous margin, thank you very much, and it has cost the Cubs staff its best-in-baseball status. The Nats are better, and the Mets are right there.

This isn’t just about Jake Arrieta’s recent slide. Jon Lester got bombed in his last two starts and has plummeted to 15th among N.L. starters in ERA. Jason Hammel is way down at 20th now. John Lackey hasn’t had a dominant performance in over a month.

It isn’t just about the starting staff, either. As everyone has known for a while, the Cubs bullpen needs to be better and will continue to be rejiggered.

Of course, Arrieta: Turns out he’s a man, not a machine. Once seemingly unhittable, Arrieta (12-4, 2.68) now is barely hanging on to a spot among the N.L.’s top 10 in ERA. And this is alarming: He has walked more batters — 43 — than any of the N.L.’s top 20 starters in ERA.

Arrieta probably can forget about repeating as Cy Young. The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the Nats’ Stephen Strasburg and even Marlins strikeout machine Jose Fernandez all are better-positioned for runs at the award. For Arrieta, Job 1 simply is re-establishing himself as the Cubs’ ace.

Good on good: The Cubs are a combined 17-6 against the Pirates, Nationals and Dodgers. But they’re 6-14 against the Cardinals, Mets, Marlins and Giants. In total, the performance vs. potential playoff opponents has been unconvincing. There’s a chance to improve on that with the Rangers and Mets visiting Wrigley Field to start the second half.

Expectations vs. reality: The Cubs’ Pythagorean record — essentially, what their record should be based on run differential — is 59-29. Their actual mark is six games shy of that, and one of the key reasons has to be their 11-14 mark in one-run games. That’ll have to turn around before the postseason, when games routinely are tight into the late innings.

The MVP race: Your N.L. leader at the break is … the Mets’ Daniel Murphy? Tops in average (.348) and second in RBIs (66), he’s certainly up there. But so are Kris Bryant, who’s tops in homers (25) and third in RBIs (65), and Anthony Rizzo, who’s among the leaders with 21 long balls and 63 driven in.

Rizzo leads the N.L. with an OPS of 1.006. Bryant is tops with a WAR rating of 4.6, if you’re big on that sort of thing. Each Cubs star has an excellent shot at the award.

1 THROUGH 9

1. Giants: A .636 road winning percentage will carry a team a long way. Brandon Crawford — best shortstop in N.L.? — won’t be defined by an All-Star snub.

2. Nationals: Ended first half on an 11-4 tear. What happens first: a Strasburg defeat or a Bryce Harper breakout?

3. Cubs: Remember when a quality start was a given, not a fantasy?

4. Rangers: The only team in baseball with a worse staff ERA in July than the Cubs. What’s going on here?

5. Indians: They’ve cooled some after the prolonged hot streak that separated them from the A.L. Central pretenders. Still, the Cleveland pitching rocks.

6. Astros: How does 31-13 since May 22 sound? Meanwhile, Jose Altuve continues to be the baddest little man in the league.

7. Blue Jays: Third place? Yes. Best team in the A.L. East? Yeah, probably. They’re 8-2 in July and only two games out of first.

8. Dodgers: A rugged road trip to start the second half will test their mettle. Come back soon, Kershaw.

9. Orioles: We’ll give them credit for holding on to that A.L. East lead, but few will be shocked if it turns into Jays vs. Red Sox.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com