It was a nice day for the Bryzzo Souvenir Co.
Friday’s 6-1 win over the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates is the kind of victory most folks envisioned for the Cubs’ follow-up campaign to their curse-busting World Series championship a season ago. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo combined for three home runs, and it was an especially monstrous day for Bryant, who a day after losing the All-Star Game’s Final Vote collected four hits with two homers, a triple, four RBIs and three runs scored.
But this season hasn’t been what everyone expected. The Cubs moved back to .500 thanks to the win and still remain a handful of games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central standings. They’ll send just one player to the All-Star Game next week, closer Wade Davis, while franchise faces Bryant and Rizzo won’t be suiting up in South Florida.
But while the team has looked nothing but mediocre through the first half of this season as the defending champs, Bryant and Rizzo make it easy to see why there’s such confidence inside the clubhouse that a second-half surge is imminent.
“I’ve kind of been waiting for one of those games,” Bryant said. “I’ve felt pretty good about my approach and where I’m at and taking my walks and stuff like that, but you need a game like that to get you back on track and hopefully gets the team back on track, too.”
“To see Kris with the two homers today is really nice,” Rizzo said. “It’s just a matter of time before he gets scorching hot. He’s already had a greater amazing first half, but it’s only a matter of time before he gets scorching hot.”
Despite no trips to Marlins Park next week for All-Star festivities, Bryant and Rizzo haven’t been far off from All-Star caliber seasons. The numbers — and the Cubs’ disappointing record — might not make them the best at their positions in the NL, and it’d be hard to argue they deserve spots on the roster instead of the guys who made the team.
But Bryant has 18 homers and a .397 on-base percentage. Rizzo has 20 homers and a .392 on-base percentage. They both rank in the top 15 in the NL in on-base percentage and in the top 20 in home runs.
Like Rizzo said, that’s already a very nice first half. If they get just a little bit better — and more importantly if the players around them get better — this second-half turnaround doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea.
“Everybody relies on their big guys all the time,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But I see a lot of big guys in this lineup. Addison (Russell) had 95 RBIs last year. Jason Heyward, he hits the ball on the numbers right at the guy (for a seventh-inning lineout Friday). We’re still looking to get (Kyle Schwarber) on board. But it’s really nice, absolutely, when the 2 and 3 or 3 and 4 hitters are going for you. But I really believe so much in the talent up and down, even on the bench.”
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Bryant and Rizzo are quite obviously the top hitters on this team, but they’re not trying to carry an offense that has struggled much of the year. They simply want to do their parts to be sporadic sparks and pass along the hot bats to everyone else in the clubhouse.
“I don’t think that’s our personalities. I feel like we don’t need to do that just because we have so much talent here,” Bryant said, batting down the idea that he and Rizzo alone will fuel a turnaround by themselves. “It’s just a matter of getting guys clicking at the right time. I think that’s the biggest thing for us is just get guys going, two or three guys that go on hot streaks here and kind of carry the team for a handful of games, then you pass it on to someone else. I feel like that’s kind of what we did last year, a really good job of it.”
“We want to win,” Rizzo said, “so just passing it on to the next guy. We know someone’s going to do it that day. Who’s going to be the spark that day, we don’t know.”
The Cubs have seemed to live and die by the home run this season, and considering they scored five of their six runs on three separate homers Friday, that didn’t really change. But Maddon was pleased with what he saw, Bryant’s triple to start the scoring in the fourth inning a noteworthy example.
The Cubs left seven guys on base in the first three innings but then scored three runs with two outs in the fourth. And both of Bryant’s homers came with two outs, too.
“That’s what I’m looking for, man,” Maddon said. “I like to have the power, but I also want swarm, guys to be able to put the ball in play and keep the conga line moving with singles, walks, two-strike hits. That’s what I want us to be in the second half.
“We’re working on a better approach overall, we’re seeing a two-strike approach, we’re seeing the ball go two sides of the field. And I think for us to be really successful in the second half, a big part of it’s going to be due to the fact we’re better situationally and better scoring runners from third with less than two outs.”
It seems so easy to see that this team is capable of taking off and blasting past the Brewers and running away with another division title. But there have been games like this all season long, throwbacks to last season where it looked like everything was going to fall into place for the Cubs, who have watched their season-starting stumble grow one month at a time.
This team knows the reality, though, and saw it again Friday. The Cubs made three errors, a far cry from the supposed “D-peat.” Eddie Butler pitched only four innings, and while he didn’t give up any runs he still showed the vulnerability of a starting rotation that still hasn’t gotten on track.
So the Cubs are going to take things one day at a time, as the old sports cliche goes, and hope that they can do what they haven’t been able to do with much consistency this season: string some wins together and break out their .500 funk.
“It’s nice,” Rizzo said of Friday’s win. “Now we’ve got to win tomorrow, get a two-game win streak going.”