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updated: 7/9/2012 5:19 PM

Some key points as Cubs hit halfway point

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  • Cubs manager Dale Sveum was touting Alfonso Soriano for the all-star game earlier this month. Despite more than 100 chances, Soriano has not made an error this season, which is tops among NL left fielders.

      Cubs manager Dale Sveum was touting Alfonso Soriano for the all-star game earlier this month. Despite more than 100 chances, Soriano has not made an error this season, which is tops among NL left fielders.
    Associated Press

  • The defensive play by Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney, left, and shortstop Starlin Castro has solidified the team's defense, one of key improvements this season.

      The defensive play by Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney, left, and shortstop Starlin Castro has solidified the team's defense, one of key improvements this season.
    Associated Press

  • Anthony Rizzo has delivered plenty of smiles to Cubs fans since he joined the big club. Rizzo, who had an eight-game hitting streak snapped Sunday, has delivered 4 game-winning RBI.

      Anthony Rizzo has delivered plenty of smiles to Cubs fans since he joined the big club. Rizzo, who had an eight-game hitting streak snapped Sunday, has delivered 4 game-winning RBI.
    Associated Press

  • Last season at this point Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro had 2 home runs and finished the year with 10. This time around he already has 7 home runs and played some solid defense.

      Last season at this point Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro had 2 home runs and finished the year with 10. This time around he already has 7 home runs and played some solid defense.
    Associated Press

 
 

For all the recent hoopla concerning the Cubs and "Rizzo-mania," let's remember that they're 19 games under .500 at the all-star break.

That said, there's never a dull day with this team.

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It took a run of 8-4 to get the Cubs to a record of 33-52 at the break, putting them on pace for a final win-loss record of 63-99.

The recent call-up of first baseman Anthony Rizzo had something to do with that, as did some good starting pitching during that stretch. But from Day 1, there has been a buzz about this team, even when it was on pace to lose 108 games, which was not too long ago.

At the season's unofficial halfway point, let's take a look at several points of interest.

The Rizzo effect:

From the minute the Cubs sent Rizzo back to the minor leagues in spring training, the only question was when he'd be back.

The answer was June 26, and since then the Cubs have won eight of 12. Coincidence? Probably not. Rizzo had an eight-game hitting streak snapped Sunday. He sports a hitting line of .354/.367/.688 with 4 doubles, 4 home runs and 4 game-winning RBI.

His left-handed power bat in the middle of the lineup has allowed manager Dale Sveum to go with a left-right-left combination of Rizzo, Alfonso Soriano and Bryan LaHair, a move that has taken some pressure off shortstop Starlin Castro.

Castro's growth:

That Starlin Castro made his second straight All-Star Game at age 22 is no easy feat, especially considering he was the players' choice ahead of starter Rafael Furcal.

Although he suffered a recent slump, he hit his seventh home run of the season in Sunday's 7-0 victory over the Mets. At the break last year, Castro had 2 home runs on the way to 10 for the season. Castro has said he'd like to hit 15-18 homers a year, and he could be heading in that direction. And after going much of June without a walk, he has taken 6 in his last 13 games.

Castro drew attention for a mental gaffe in a game at San Francisco. Dale Sveum, however, did not bench Castro, as former manager Mike Quade did last year when he thought Castro's attention had wandered. Instead, Sveum talked with Castro about it and put him in the lineup the next day.

After trying to give Castro a physical breather by not starting him Friday in New York, Sveum wound up using him anyway late in the game. Castro has played in all 85 games so far, and a day off or two in the second half might be a good idea.

Defense, defense:

Left fielder Alfonso Soriano is one of only two major-league left fielders to have handled at least 100 total chances without an error this season (the White Sox' Dayan Viciedo is the other). Soriano's 2.10 chances-per-game rank him third among National League left fielders.

Second baseman Darwin Barney has only 1 error this season and is on a streak of 72 games and 584.1 innings without a miscue.

Gold Gloves, anyone?

The Cubs' defense has looked cleaner and sharper this season. Most interesting is how the infield overshifts on occasion, saving many a basehit up the middle. It's part of Dale Sveum's "90 percent" rule of thumb. In other words, he feels that the shifting works 90 percent of the time, making the 10 percent that it doesn't worth the risk.

The Cubs also rarely play their infield at "double-play depth," instead opting to keep their players deep to keep balls from getting past them.

The overall philosophy appears to be working, but a lot of the credit goes to infield coach Pat Listach and outfield coach Dave McKay.

Barney and Starlin Castro look smoother around the second-base bag, and McKay is a tireless worker with the outfielders.

Sveum's MVPs:

Starlin Castro and Bryan LaHair are the Cubs' all-stars, and Dale Sveum touted Alfonso Soriano for that honor during the first half.

However, he gave an interesting response to reporters in New York over the weekend when asked who his team MVPs were: relievers James Russell and Shawn Camp.

"Those guys have been phenomenal," Sveum said. "Without those two guys, we would've been in a lot of trouble. The combination of both of them has been tremendous. They've been consistent all season long. To have the numbers they have, and handle a position they've been put in speaks volumes for what they've done for this team."

Lefty Russell and right-hander Camp held the bullpen fort when Carlos Marmol was on the disabled list or in internal exile from his closer role after early-season struggles.

Marmol is back -- albeit with some shaky moments -- and Russell and Camp have done stellar work in setup roles. Russell is 2-0 with a 2.38 ERA and a WHIP (walks plus hits per 1 inning pitched) of 1.25, and Camp is 2-4 with an ERA of 2.80 and a WHIP of 1.09.

If Marmol can stay effective, Russell and Camp should be able to thrive. The break comes at a good time for both bullpen stalwarts. Each has appeared in 43 games, and Sveum will have to avoid overusing them in the second half.

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