If the Cubs aren’t World Series favorites at the start of August, don’t try to tell them that.
“It’s back,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “All those good vibes, all those good juices that we’ve had for the last couple years are back.”
After two new roster upgrades Tuesday, the Cubs trounced the Arizona Diamondbacks 16-4 in a meeting that could be a prelude to a playoff series, improving to 14-3 since the All-Star break.
What happened to that lifeless team that coughed and stumbled into the break with a losing record, 5½ games out of first place?
“Just a different look in guys’ eyes,” said Rizzo, who underscored the dramatic turn in the Cubs’ fortunes with two home runs after spending Sunday on the trainer’s table with a tight back.
“Apparently his back’s doing better,” manager Joe Maddon said.
How good is it to be a Cub these days?
Opening Day starter Jon Lester couldn’t get an out in the fifth inning before being pulled at 104 pitches — yet left with a haul that included his first career home run, his 2,000th career strikeout and an 8-2 lead.
Lester, who shook his head as he left the mound to cheers, said the “weird” game defied how good his arm and stuff felt.
“Obviously, I appreciated [the fans’ response],” he said. “But it’s not up to my standards by any means.”
And yet the Cubs scored 16 for the first time since April of last year and rolled to their easiest victory of the season.
“It’s a different feeling,” Rizzo said. “You can’t pinpoint the one thing; it’s just everyone feels really good right now.”
Maybe some of that was the trade with the Tigers late Sunday night that landed left-hander Justin Wilson, perhaps the top relief pitcher dealt in July, and former All-Star catcher Alex Avila.
“I think even before the more recent move, we were more than capable of winning the division and making a push,” said Jake Arrieta, who starts Wednesday. “But obviously, adding guys like Avila and Wilson make us better.”
Said Kris Bryant: “They’re perfect for what we’ve got going on here.”
Including the addition of lefty starter Jose Quintana at the All-Star break, the Cubs were as aggressive as anybody in the National League in adding help at the deadline. The NL West-leading Dodgers countered by adding frontline rent-a-starter Yu Darvish and bullpen help in the final hours Monday.
“The Dodgers did what I guess you’d call more flashy moves,” Bryant said. “They got some really good players. They’re going to be tough to beat. But we’re excited with the ones that we got.”
Wilson — one of four experienced closers in the Cubs’ pen — allows Maddon to spread out the late-inning workload and keep an already strong group healthy and fresh, Maddon said.
But the confidence — the “juices” — seemed to reach season-high levels well ahead of the Tigers trade.
“We came out of the break like a different team,” Lester said.
And they go into their final 57 games with a 2½-game division lead and one of the softer schedules of any contender once they finish this weekend’s series against the Nationals, a potential first-round playoff opponent.
“Once we broke through Baltimore and Atlanta [out of the break], we started to feel a little bit at that point,” Maddon said. “And coming off two out of three in Milwaukee, a really hard-fought series, our confidence is pointing in the right direction. I cannot deny it has more of a ’15, ’16 feel as opposed to the beginning of ’17.”
Maddon said it’s like his uncle’s old ’65 Plymouth that had trouble starting.
“We keep hitting that thing, and it does not want to turn over, it does not want to engage,” he said. “And all of a sudden, it just finally kicked in, and we’re starting to look like we’re supposed to look.”
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