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OK, Cubs — time to see if you can win your way to No. 103

Dexter Fowler

One year ago, the Cubs reported for work on the next-to-last Friday of July with a promising enough record of 51-43. If they weren’t yet of the same class as the Cardinals, or even the Pirates, they clearly were closing the gap.

The Phillies — the worst team in baseball — were in town, presenting the Cubs with a chance to get a second-half hot streak going. Who knew? Maybe the postseason was a possibility.

Three days later, the wretched Phillies completed a sweep of the Cubs by a combined score of 21-8. The series finale got so out of hand, catcher David Ross pitched the top of the ninth inning.

It was kind of funny at the time … but not really.

“It was a terrible day,” said manager Joe Maddon, and good luck finding his trademark positive outlook in those year-old words.

But things would get so much better from there. After that Phillies series, the Cubs ripped off a 16-2 streak that turned into a thrilling 46-19 run to end the regular season.

In all, they were 46-22 over their final 68 contests — which happens to be the very number remaining in the regular season for this year’s Cubs.

You want a “target” for these Cubs? There’s a heck of a target. Who wouldn’t sign up, on this next-to-last Friday of July, for 46-22 the rest of the way? It would put the Cubs, 57-37, at 103 victories.

Last we checked, that was still pretty good.

There’ve been a lot of questions asked by a lot of people lately about just how capable the Cubs are of finishing the season as well as they started it. But the starting pitching has returned to form since the All-Star break. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are two-man-ganging up on every opponent they face. Dexter Fowler’s return will only help. The bullpen has been shored up.

And then there’s the schedule from here. It begins with three games at Cubs fans’ home away from home — Miller Park in Milwaukee — and then four against the bumbling White Sox.

The sweet stench of opportunity is all around the Cubs now.


Up: It’s plain to see that Willson Contreras has ruined the Cubs’ season. Since the rookie’s first major league start on June 20, the team has gone 10-17.

OK, so maybe it hasn’t been all Contreras’ fault. In fact, he has been as good as advertised with his bat — he’s hitting .333 at Wrigley Field — and even better than that with his throwing arm from behind the plate. And then there’s his play in left field … which we won’t get into.

Down: Ben Zobrist had a rough June at the plate, but at least he rallied with six hits in the final three games of that month to raise his average to .301. Since then, Zobrist has been awful, with zero multi-hit games and only five hits in 50 July at-bats. At least he got to start the All-Star Game.

Up: For the second year in a row — by a little over 100 fans per game — the Cubs trail only the Dodgers among all major league teams in average road attendance.

Both clubs have, of course, large and far-flung fan bases. Yet the Dodgers have the advantage of playing in the N.L. West, where the ballparks are larger than those in the N.L. Central.

The Dodgers have been the N.L.’s top road draw for four consecutive seasons. As recently as 2013, the Cubs ranked ninth in the N.L.


If one had to squeeze a Cubs starter out of the playoff rotation today, it pretty much would have to be Jason Hammel. Right? Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are off-limits. John Lackey is too experienced and fearless. And Kyle Hendricks has been just plain too good.

Pretty nuts, though, when one recalls Hammel’s brilliance over the first two months of the season, when he was 7-1 with a skimpy 2.14 ERA. Hammel — who’ll pitch Friday’s opener in Milwaukee — finally earned victory No. 8 in his most recent start. If he gets tuned up again, things could look quite different.


1. Cubs: Well, well, look who has the best record in baseball again. Problems over? Not all of them, but close enough for now.

2. Nationals: Stephen Strasburg — who finally was tagged with his first loss of the season — and Max Scherzer seem to have a worthy partner in Tanner Roark. The Nats are 9-1 over Roark’s last 10 starts.

3. Giants: They’ve played five games since the All-Star break and lost them all. Other than that, everything’s awesome.

4. Blue Jays: They’re 11-4 in July — with a nine-game homestand to end the month. Which duo is better, sluggers Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion or starting pitchers Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ?

5. Red Sox: Winning a series at Yankee Stadium and then sweeping the Giants at Fenway — now that’s how you start the second half. Knuckleballer Steven Wright is in the groove of his life.

6. Indians: The staff ERA of 4.43 in July is nearly double what it was during that remarkable June. The Cubs can relate.

7. Astros: They’re 12-3 in Doug Fister’s last 15 starts. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Carlos Correa — a sensational talent — is making it hard to call anyone else the best shortstop on the planet.

8. Dodgers: There’s all kinds of anxiety over the health of Clayton Kershaw, but these guys are six games over .500 in the nearly four weeks since he last pitched. One-man team? Nope.

9. Marlins: Won four of five to start the second half, with a series win in St. Louis against one of their top rivals for a wild-card spot.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.