Holy turnaround! It’s suddenly a boom time for baseball in Chicago
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A week ago, coming out of the All-Star break, we could’ve asked about the Cubs and White Sox: Which is worse, being baseball’s most disappointing team or being one of its worst and least interesting?
But just look at the Cubs and Sox now, right? Argue amongst yourselves about which is better: being out of a rut and scratching at first place in the division, or being on everyone’s lips as the hottest up-and-coming organization in the big leagues.
A 6-0 road trip — and concurrent Brewers tailspin — turned things around in a hurry for the Cubs. At 5½ games, the division deficit was daunting enough to be taken with solemn seriousness. The deficit now down to a single game, it seems beyond a doubt the defending World Series champs soon will drop-kick the Brewers back into irrelevance.
“The vibe has been great, the energy has been great, and I want to see that continue,” manager Joe Maddon said.
And how cool are the Sox right now? It had to hurt so good to say goodbye to veterans Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier and David Robertson and hello to exciting prospects Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease and Blake Rutherford. Best farm system in baseball? It might not even be close. And calling up No. 1 prospect Yoan Moncada was like a perfectly timed gift to fans — a taste of high times to come.
“Everybody should be excited,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I know we are.”
Forget the notion that July is a dead period on the sports calendar — this is a boom time for Chicago sports. Both our major league clubs have pep in their steps and steel in their spines. How often have we been able to say that? And the rest of the month is when perhaps the most entertaining chunks of the Cubs’ and Sox’ remaining schedules collide.
Starting Friday, the Cubs play 10 games against the rival Cardinals, crosstown Sox and (still?) first-place Brewers. The younger-all-the-time Sox get the Royals, Cubs and Indians — the past two World Series winners and last year’s runners-up, for those of you scoring at home.
Maybe the Cubs will keep playing like their rear ends are on fire and put together a season-defining winning streak. Maybe Moncada will flash lots of All-Star potential to go with his seriously unfair good looks. (Who does he think he is, Kris Bryant?)
Regardless, it bears watching. And wondering: What’ll it be like if and when the Cubs and Sox are contending for championships at the same time?
On to the rest of this debut One Through Nine:
2. The Brewers — off to Philadelphia after being swept in four games in Pittsburgh — aren’t giving up. At least not out loud.
“We’re still ahead,” pitcher Zach Davies told reporters after a strong seven-inning start went in vain Wednesday. “I think that’s what guys tend to forget is we built a lead for a reason.”
To fool us into thinking they could contend all year?
“At the end of the day,” Davies said, “we’re still ahead.”
That bug on your windshield said the same thing just a minute ago.
3. An 11-2 tear has gotten the Pirates to .500 and within three games of first place in the National League Central. Are these guys the real threats to the Cubs? Could be, yet it’s the fourth-place Cardinals (4½ back) who have the division’s best pitching staff (by ERA) to hang their hats on. The bet here would be on the Cards — warts and all — to finish no lower than second.
4. About that nearly season-long narrative that it’s win the division or bust in the NL Central? It just doesn’t ring true anymore. The Diamondbacks have lost 12 of their last 17 games. The Rockies, despite winning four straight, have dropped 15 of 24. In short: Both are catchable.
5. How ’bout that American League Central? The Indians have won only once since the All-Star break. The allegedly contending Royals and Twins have been stinking it up, too. With the Tigers in sell mode and the Sox jumping up and down on the reset button, here’s your worst division in baseball.
6. Can we just be real for a second? The Dodgers are better — hands down — than last year’s Cubs. Relax, I just mean through 95 games, but still. The world-beater Cubs were 58-37 with a plus-154 run differential. The Dodgers were 66-29 with a plus-181 run differential. I’ll leave the math to you.
7. It’s hard to say which is more impressive, the combined numbers of Dodgers lefties Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood — try 26-2 with a 1.87 ERA on for size — or Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner’s best-in-baseball .372 batting average.
The instinctive reaction is to favor the pitching duo. Yet Turner’s average would, over a full season, tie him — with three others — for the best in baseball this century. Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki (2004), Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra (2000) and Colorado’s Todd Helton (2000) all hit .372, too.
8. The quote of the week, courtesy of Cubs shortstop Addison Russell: “We’re all on the same page now. We’re all-in. We’re back to playing Cubbie baseball.”
9. In 2015, his Rookie of the Year season, the Cubs’ Bryant struck out in 30.6 percent of his plate appearances, the highest number on the team. In 2016, his MVP season, Bryant lowered it to 22 percent — only fourth-highest among Cubs regulars.
In 2017, Kyle Schwarber (28.9 percent), Ian Happ (28.6), Javy Baez (26.5), Willson Contreras (25.2) and Russell (22.5) all are quite a bit worse than their superstar teammate in this regard. Bryant has gotten his number down to 19.8. That’s big-time progress.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.