5 reasons the Chicago Cubs bounced back after a slow start
Believe it or not, the Chicago Cubs are at the one-quarter point of the 2019 season.
They say time flies when you're having a good time, and the Cubs have been having a great time of it lately.
After getting off to a 2-7 start on their season-opening road trip, the Cubs were 25-15 at the threshold of the quarter point before Thursday night's game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. That was three games better than last year's mark of 22-18 after 40, and it was the Cubs' best mark since the world-champion 2016 club went 29-11.
Cubs president Theo Epstein felt the need to apologize for the poor start at the tail end of the first road trip, but things have stabilized since then. Here are a few reasons why:
Quality starting pitching:
Cubs starting pitchers have been dealing. Over the first 40 games, the rotation had 21 quality starts, with the team going 18-3 in those games and the starters putting up a microscopic ERA of 1.26 in those games.
Veterans Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels led the way with 5 quality starts each, and Lester spent time on the injured list.
When the Cubs don't get a quality start, the team was 7-12, and the starters' ERA was 6.30 through 40 games.
Regression? What regression?
Shortstop Javier Baez has picked up where he left off from his runner-up season in the MVP race. Some observers predicted a "regression" for Baez, but he's not only leading the Cubs in several key offensive categories, he's also must-see baseball, at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths.
Baez has proved to be the best shortstop in the league, so any thought of moving him off the position to accommodate the recently reinstated Addison Russell seems folly at this point.
Another MVP candidate?
When talking about most valuable players -- or early candidates for Most Valuable Player -- let's not forget catcher Willson Contreras.
Bound and determined to bounce back from a disappointing 2018, Contreras was off to a .303/.410/.605 with 10 home runs and 25 RBI entering Thursday. His .410 on-base percentage led the team. After catching for 15 innings Saturday, Contreras calmly stepped to the plate in the bottom of the inning and hit a walk-off homer against the Brewers
The only thing the Cubs will have to watch with Contreras is catching him too much. Getting Victor Caratini back from the injured list should help. Caratini was activated Thursday after recovering from surgery to remove the hamate bone in his left hand.
Bryant looks to be back:
Kris Bryant went from Opening Day (March 28) to April 26 between home runs No. 1 and 2 this season, raising questions about his health after last season's shoulder ailment torpedoed his second half.
But Bryant is looking fit, as his OPS of .927 entering Thursday attests.
Interestingly, the Cubs' notes from Game 40 last year touted the good start to which Bryant had gotten off:
"In his first 36 games this season, Kris Bryant has a .429 on-base percentage and a .596 slugging percentage, good for a 1.024 OPS. Those are ahead of the numbers he put up in his first 36 games of 2017 (.404 OBP, .542 SLG, .945 OPS) and well ahead of the numbers he posted in the first 36 games of his N.L. MVP 2016 season (.354 OBP, .486 SLG, .840 OPS)."
A shoulder injury Bryant suffered after the quarter mark slowed his season.
After a rocky start, the Cubs' bullpen has stabilized, as well. And the Cubs are doing it with closer Brandon Morrow on the injured list and his replacement, Pedro Strop, also on the IL.
No one knows yet when or if Morrow will be back, and no doubt team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will add to the bullpen.
Until then, relievers such as Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler have held the fort. Getting left-hander Mike Montgomery off the injured list paid off immediately, with Montgomery going 5 innings in relief of Yu Darvish last week. Tyler Chatwood, banished from the rotation last year, also has come up big in relief.