One’s opinion on the state of the Cubs at the halfway mark of the season with a 9-7 win against the Braves depends on perspective.
And in many ways, their victory Thursday was a microcosm of their season up to this point — minus the fact they actually had a closer.
Bad start. Shaky middle. Too-close-for-comfort finish.
“Of course I’d like to be in a better position,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the Cubs’ first half. “We’ve left some chicken on the bone, no question.”
The Cubs stumbled out the gates with a 2-7 record to start the year before finding their groove and winning 25 of their next 35 games.
But for almost six weeks, they’ve been more “pedestrian,” as Maddon said, going 17-20 in that span — and 5-5 in their just-completed 10-game homestand.
Yet, when they wake up in the morning they’re going to be one game ahead of the Brewers for first place in the NL Central.
Even though it may not have always felt like it, this series was a battle of first-place teams who if they face-off again it’ll be in the playoffs.
And the Cubs came out with a draw in the four-game series and actually outscored the Braves.
“Today we played one of the more elite teams in baseball, I think we’re one of them,” Maddon said. “And you can see it’s a toe-to-toe kind of thing.”
On one hand, Maddon has a point. There are reasons for the Cubs to be viewed as an elite team.
They have the third-best record (44-37) in the NL and rank No. 6 in team ERA despite having a bullpen that can’t consistently be relied on.
On the other hand, they’ve had the tendency to be an all-or-nothing offense when they’ve struggled with a lot of homers and a lot of strikeouts.
And they have a losing record against the other first-place teams they’ve faced. They’re a combined 6-11 against the Braves, Astros and Dodgers.
Maddon suggested the team’s offensive malaise can be due to guys trying too hard.
“Sometimes you get to the point where you take it so seriously that you beat yourself up and then your performance just doesn’t come through,” Maddon said. “I believe in our guys. I trust our guys. And from the offensive perspective, that’s where the run’s going to come. And the only way that’s going to happen is if we chill and just go out there and let her fly a little bit.”
And the Cubs sure did let it fly against the Braves after the third inning. They retook a lead by combing for seven runs in the fourth and fifth.
They added an insurance run in the sixth before the bullpen shut out the Braves. Craig Kimbrel was shaky in his Cubs’ debut — but he got the job done and picked up the save.
Maybe having an actual closer for the first time since the All-Star break last year will provide a spark for the Cubs, and lead to a stronger second half.
Maybe they’ll find better results in a nine-game road trip against teams with losing records leading into the break — opening Friday in Cincinnati.
Regardless, the Cubs believe the answers are in their own veteran clubhouse.
“We’ve been doing good,” Javy Baez said. “Things aren’t going our way all the time, but we gotta do us. We don’t need to worry about first place or second place. We look at that in September.”