A breakdown as Cubs hit the break

Life could not have been better or more fun for the Cubs and their fans on Sunday night, June 19.

As the summer solstice was about to dawn, the Cubs were playing in front of a festive crowd at Wrigley Field and before a national TV audience.

On that night, they completed a three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates with a 10-5 victory. During the game, Willson Contreras hit the first major-league pitch he saw for a home run. The pipeline of young talent appeared never-ending, and the Pirates looked all but buried in the National League Central.

The Cubs were a season high 27 victories over .500 at 47-20, they were on pace for 114 wins, their starting pitchers had ERAs and WHIPs you needed a microscope to see and it was time to usher the St. Louis Cardinals into Wrigley Field and show them, too, who was boss.

Roll out those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer.

Then it all stopped, as if a cold north wind rushed in and put a chill on things.

The Cardinals swept the Cubs sending them on a skid that would have them careening into the all-star break with a record of 6-15 over their next 21 games. Their lead in the Central shrunk from 12½ games to 7.

Even so, there was much more good than bad for the Cubs in the "first half." Kris Bryant is a legitimate MVP candidate, Anthony Rizzo ended the pre-break stretch on a tear, and the Cubs are sending seven players to San Diego for the All-Star Game. And, most important, the Cubs still have the biggest lead in any division in baseball.

Let's take a look at the first half in three different segments.

Starting pitching:

After play on June 19, Cubs starting pitchers had a record of 39-14 with a 2.31 ERA, best in the major leagues.

It's been quite a different story, beginning with the Cubs getting swept by the Cardinals June 20-22.

During that stretch, the rotation has turned in only 6 quality starts, and it entered the break with a streak of 10 non-quality starts. The starters' ERA since June 20 is 6.04.

Jake Arrieta has struggled with his command. Jon Lester has had starts of 1⅓ and 3 innings, and John Lackey has seen his ERA go from 2.66 to 3.70.

Today, the starters' record is 42-24 with a 3.09 ERA. Cubs starters entered play on June 20 having allowed 30 homers for the season to that point. They've allowed 30 homers in the three weeks since June 20.

The new guys:

Last winter, the Cubs' biggest acquisition was free-agent outfielder Jason Heyward, whom they signed to an eight-year, $184 million contract, The Cubs noted that although Heyward is a veteran, he's one day younger than "young core player" Anthony at 26 years old.

They signed Lackey to add depth and a tough of nastiness to the rotation. And they signed now-35-year-old Ben Zobrist to a four-year deal.

Of the three, Zobrist is going to the All-Star Game. It's hard to imagine where the Cubs would be without this jack-of-all-trades. In addition to playing multiple positions, Zobrist entered the break with a line of .283/.388/.467 with 13 home runs and 47 RBI. Given Zobrist's age, it will be important for manager Joe Maddon to continue finding days off for him.

Heyward has a wins above replacement (WAR) of 1.5, but that's due mostly to his defense, which has been stellar. At the plate, it's been a different story, with Heyward having a line of .243/.331/.337 with 4 homers and 28 RBI.

It looks like Heyward is tying himself up on his swing, and before the Cubs left for this past weekend's series at Pittsburgh, I asked him about making in-season adjustments.

"People can do it in-season; it's not the easiest time to do it," he said. "It happens. We make adjustments to our swings a lot more than you would know."

Asked about his first half, Heyward said: "Personally I feel like, coming into a new situation, it's been some growing. I feel like it was rough early on, having a wrist injury and trying to hit through that. That's never easy. But once that healed up, I feel like a lot of not seeing a lot of results from hitting some balls hard at people, but I feel like it's happened more this year than at any other time. That's the way it goes. Other than that, I would like to help more."

Heyward is off to a good start in July, going .300/.378/.425 to start the month.

Lackey, whom Maddon called the "linchpin" of the staff when the rotation was on a roll, is 0-2 with a 7.54 ERA in his last 4 starts.

The injury bug:

No doubt the Cubs have been hit hard by injuries. They lost the potent left-handed bat of Kyle Schwarber for the season in early April, when he suffered a serious knee injury.

Leadoff man and offensive sparkplug Dexter Fowler has been on the disabled list since June 20, with a slow-to-heal hamstring injury. He won't be able to play in the All-Star Game.

Jorge Soler, an opening-day starter, is experiencing yet another season of injury. He has been on the DL since June 7 with hamstring strain.

The Cubs also have been hobbled at times this year by injuries to catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross, backup outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella.

If there's any upside to those injuries, it's that it's enabled the Cubs to give extended playing time to young players such as Contreras, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr.

Each player has shown flashes of brilliance while suffering the expected growing pains.

It will be interesting to see how each responds if the division race tightens further in the second half.

Watching the ERAs rise

Since the Cubs began a slump on June 20, the ERAs of all of their starting pitchers except Kyle Hendricks have risen. Here is a look:

ERAs before June 20:

Jake Arrieta: 1.74

Jon Lester: 2.06

John Lackey: 2.66

Jason Hammel: 2.26

Kyle Hendricks: 2.94

ERAs at the all-star break:

Arrieta: 2.68

Lester: 3.01

Lackey: 3.70

Hammel: 3.46

Hendricks: 2.61

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