What an exciting first half for the Chicago Cubs and their fans. The downs and ups. The starting pitching going from assumed strength to daily question mark. Then finishing at the break a surprising 2½ games ahead of the Brewers, and just when they started to feel like a formidable rival (which they may still be).
Jon Lester on pace for his first 20-win season. Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist have rebounded. Albert Almora Jr. is contending for the team’s first NL batting crown since Derrek Lee in 2005. And Kyle Schwarber’s making a surprise challenge for the outfield assist title.
But stealing it all has been Javier Baez and his almost daily waves of his magic wand. Perhaps the most amazing thing about his All-Star first half is he hasn’t really addressed any past weaknesses. He’s just taken what he does great and turned the amplifier all the way up to 11. Although his amp actually goes to 12, so maybe he can turn it up even further.
It’s still premature to call 2018 a great season. Success in October ultimately determines that. But we can still talk early “circle games.” That’s what ESPN’s Buster Olney calls those contests worth circling on the schedule, the ones that feel pivotal to launching or turning around a memorable season.
So before the team tackles the final 69 regular season games, here are my nominations for the five most memorable first-half games. For each, I also include a link back to the fine recaps put together Cubs Insider’s many excellent and dedicated writers.
March 29: Season starts Happ-y
Ian Happ entered the record books as the first player to homer on the first pitch of the Major League Baseball season when he went yard in Miami. It paced the Cubs to an 8-4 opening-day win. Happ’s homer also briefly put to rest questions about the Cubs leadoff spot and whether Happ might avoid the “Schwarber trap.”
Alas, that relief would be temporary and the Cubs ultimately didn’t capitalize on their soft early schedule against Miami and Cincinnati. Not only did they lose three of those first five games, but their offense struck out an NL record 58 times in those games. But Happ’s homer now lingers as silver-lining proof of many electrifying moments to come from this team.
April 14: Epic Atlanta comeback
After shutting out the Cubs the day before, the Braves plated 10 runs in the first four innings. But the Cubs showed unique resilience. The bullpen shut down the Braves thereafter, and the lineup ran up the pitch count of young starter Sean Newcombe to chase him after 5.1 innings.
Then the offense stormed back for a 14-10 come-from-behind win. But this epic comeback proved extra improbable as the Cubs scored their final 11 runs on just four hits. Thank you, Braves relievers, for also walking six, hitting three, and uncorking one run-scoring wild pitch. But credit the Cubs for taking every inch the other team gives.
June 3: El Mago steal seals sweep
In the season highlight so far, Baez broke a scoreless lefty duel between Lester and the Mets’ Steven Matz by stealing home. It happened in the 7th inning on a soft Matz pick-off throw to first that left every announcing booth in the stadium – and all of baseball – abuzz.
Most significantly, the 2-0 win completed the team’s first four-game sweep in New York since 1991. The play also stands as the signature moment for Baez in a first half filled with swim moves, steals of home, and pressuring defenses into a myriad of errors.
June 6: Heyward’s Walk-Off Slam
In a possible playoff preview, the Cubs managed three runs against ace Philadelphia starter Aaron Nola. But Brandon Morrow and Steve Cishek had rare shaky games, leaving the Cubs down two with their last at-bats looming. With two outs and two strikes, Jason Heyward faced hard-throwing lefty Adam Morgan and jacked an unexpected walk-off grand slam.
The homer put Heyward’s average over .260 and restored fans’ and Joe Maddon’s faith that the right fielder’s bat speed was back after two years in Tibet. Then Heyward did it again 10 days later in St. Louis, depositing Jordan Hicks’ 99 mph fastball over the right-field wall for a two-run homer.
July 14: Who’s Your Padre?
The Cubs beat the Padres in dominant fashion with an 11-6 victory. It was a total TCB game – taking care of business. But it also coincided with the Brewers dropping both ends of their doubleheader in Pittsburgh. This let the Cubs jump to a 1½-game division lead.
Will this game and the finish in San Diego propel the Cubs onto another patented strong second half? Will it be a psychological circle game of the negative kind for the Brewers? Will it pressure the Brewers to overspend on a splashy trade, especially with Manny Machado gone, and could that mean they target Jacob deGrom?
Only time will tell, but it’s certainly been a dramatic down-and-then-up first half for the Cubs.