CHICAGO -- It probably shouldn't come down to the semantics of one game, but the Chicago Cubs were that close to finishing the first half on a positive note after a miserable stretch of baseball. After winning consecutive games on Thursday and Saturday for the first time since June 23-24, it was too much to ask for a third straight victory. That hasn't happened since the beginning of last month. Instead, they fell to the Chicago White Sox 3-1 on Sunday, completing their pre-All-Star break schedule in maddening fashion.
Somehow, the Cubs went 22-28 over their past 50 games, yet they find themselves in first place in the National League Central heading into the annual midsummer break. Thanks to a division full of teams that keep beating up on each other, every team can claim a realistic shot at taking the title at the end of September. But no matter the standings, playing six games under .500 for nearly a third of the season is concerning, to say the least.
So, yes, first place. But 22-28 over the past 50.
It's time for that proverbial question: Is the glass half-full or half-empty for the Cubs?
"We're in a decent spot right now and haven't come close to playing our best baseball," manager Joe Maddon said before Sunday's loss. "You're going to see a better brand of all this in the second half."
That's music to the ears to Cubs fans because what they've seen lately is anything but a "better brand." Maddon's team has played "sloppy," a word team president Theo Epstein used as recently as Saturday. Some stats back up that description, as the Cubs lead MLB in outs made on the base paths (excluding pickoffs and caught stealing) while compiling the second-worst fielding percentage in the National League. Add their 13th-ranked offense in the NL with runners in scoring position, and you start to see why many believe that the glass isn't very full. And why watching them has indeed been maddening.
"I don't think what we've done in the first half is going to be good enough," All-Star Kris Bryant said rather casually due to the obvious nature of the statement. "We're just as greedy as any fan out there. We want to be 10 games ahead. There's a lot more breathing room, but it just hasn't gone that way for us this year. First place is great, but we've missed a lot of opportunities to separate ourselves. That's the frustrating part. We just have to play better. I know we can do it."
Fortunately, the Cubs don't have to beat out the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers to win their division. That's where the glass-half-full fans get their say: Despite all the shortcomings, the Cubs are in first place.
"It's a cannibalistic kind of a division," Maddon said.
With 4.5 games separating top from the bottom, it would be hard to argue against Maddon's assessment of the NL Central. According to Elias, the only division with fewer games separating first and last place at the All-Star break was the American League West in 2006. And it had only four teams.
As it pertains to the Cubs, at least their fate is in their own hands. Forty-five of the their final 72 games will come against their division foes. That's the most of any NL Central team. What's the key to success?
"For me, it's the at-bats," Maddon said. "That's the area of our game, once we nail that down, all that other stuff is going to look better."
And in a moment of honesty you rarely see from team officials discussing their club in comparison to the competition, Maddon had this to say:
"When it comes down to looking at a lot of these teams, offensively, I can't tell you that we have the edge. We have really good players at a lot of positions, but so do these other teams."
The ascension of their division opponents -- and the National League in general -- has seemingly been a quick one. It wasn't long ago that the Cincinnati Reds couldn't pitch and the Pittsburgh Pirates couldn't hit. Now, they each can do both well enough to wreak havoc on the Cubs, as Cincinnati already has won three series against Chicago this season, while the Pirates just took three of four from the Cubs in the final days before the break.
"Part of it is the league has caught up in the last couple years and part of it is we're not playing the best brand of Cubs baseball," Maddon said. "But we shall. It's up to us to ascend. Instead of conceding everyone else has gotten better, it's up to us to make this all happen."
The schedule at the end of last season combined with the first half of this one has done the Cubs few favors. But it isn't something the team talks about in more than whispers. Before a Friday off day, the team had played 50 games in 52 days, which makes the beginning of the second half that much more important. The Cubs open at home for nine games in 10 days -- six against their division foes.
But then it gets wonky again, with two one-series trips to the West Coast plus a night-time, road series finale before flying home for a Friday matinee against the Milwaukee Brewers. In fact, that scenario happens twice in the same month -- to begin August and to close it out. Both day games come against the current second-place team. That's some true glass-half-empty stuff.
"I still think that's been underestimated," Maddon said of the schedule.
Having said all that, the worst could be behind the Cubs. There's a theory -- which Maddon won't buy into until much later -- that states a team has to bottom out before it can rebound and find its way again. The Cubs might have done that this past Monday, when they lost 18-5 to the Pirates. The game personified their problems. A players-only meeting that day was followed (only by coincidence) by Maddon holding a scheduled meeting the following day.
And then the rebound began. A more normal-looking loss on Tuesday, then an extremely well-played one on Wednesday led to a blowout win on Thursday, followed by a solid victory on Saturday. Then came Sunday's defeat, a reminder it's not all going to be fixed at once for the Cubs.
"I never use the phrase 'it can't get any worse,'" Maddon explained. "I try to avoid that phrase at all costs. Because you don't know what that bottom may appear to be."
If the bottom hasn't been reached, then the Cubs are in big trouble and changes will need to be made.
"By the nature of the standings, the next few weeks are really important, for sure," Epstein said. "Every game."
A first-place team with a below-.500 record over nearly two months. How would you analyze the glass moving forward? Filling up or emptying out? One thing is for sure: The Cubs aren't taking their standing in the baseball world for granted. Maddon was asked his thoughts on his team's 47-43 record and minuscule half-game lead on the competition at the All-Star break.
"I'll take it," he said with a half-smirk.
As if he has a choice.