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Cubs remain in a tough spot with one series left in the first half

Ryan Herrera Avatar
July 7, 2023

MILWAUKEE — Ever since he returned from the knee injury that wiped out a month of his season, Cody Bellinger had struggled to find the power he displayed all April for the Cubs.

He’d already slumped a bit two weeks into May, and a left knee contusion sustained while making a spectacular catch in Houston on May 15 did him no favors. When he returned exactly a month later following just two rehab games with Triple-A Iowa, Bellinger didn’t come out of the gates hot (he had just two hits in 19 at-bats in his first six games back).

But Bellinger very quickly picked things back up after that. Since that first cold stretch, Bellinger is riding a 12-game hitting streak (which is tied for his career high). He’s hitting .467 (21-for-45) with a 1.079 OPS. And while the power had been slow to come since his return, Bellinger finally got ahold of one at American Family Field on Thursday — his first since April 30 that capped off one of the best months of his career.

“I haven’t really been too worried about it,” Bellinger said about the lack of power in recent weeks (just three extra-base hits in his last 66 plate appearances before Thursday). “I felt like my swing was in pretty good spot and just continued swinging. Swinging at the pitches I want, and over time, it should work out, hopefully.”

Unfortunately, while Bellinger has found his swing, the Cubs aren’t in any better of a position.

Bellinger’s homer Thursday couldn’t help the Cubs overcome the Brewers in the 6-5 loss. Despite splitting the rollercoaster of a series, the Cubs six games under .500 (40-46) and eight games back of the Reds for first place in the National League Central, two games worse than when they started the four-game set in Milwaukee. At a time when every game matters more the closer they get to having to make a decision on their direction at the trade deadline, they can’t find that consistency that had them on an 11-2 run and on the cusp of .500 back in June.

“I feel like things haven’t gone our way, to be honest with you, at all,” Marcus Stroman said recently. “But the commitment and the drive and the attention to detail is there. It’s just one of those things where we haven’t really clicked and we haven’t gotten on a roll. Hopefully, we come out in the second half or even over these next games we have leading up to the break, hopefully, we catch fire. Hopefully, one win after another, it starts to kind of roll and we have clumps of big winning streaks.”

If they’re going to catch fire in the Bronx, they may have to do it a bit short-handed.

After starting Thursday’s series finale in Milwaukee, Stroman will of course not be available to start at Yankee Stadium. He also stated postgame Thursday that he will not pitch during the All-Star Game on Tuesday, and he isn’t sure if he’ll even make the trip to Seattle.

As of Thursday, Stroman’s 19 starts lead the majors. When you take into the account that Stroman also pitched in the World Baseball Classic, it has been a long first half for him. Add in the travel to and from London and the smoke and the rain that affected the last homestand, and Stroman could probably use a break to try and put together an even better second half than his All-Star worthy first half.

“It’s been a huge process,” he said. “I’m very thankful for everybody who’s helped me get to this point, but definitely looking forward to having a little bit of a break — kind of just reset my energy, clear my mind and have a good second half.”

They’ll also have to wait until after the break for Nick Madrigal’s return to the lineup. Madrigal left Monday’s game when he felt his right hamstring “grab” on him while attempting to run down a popup in foul territory. He went on the 10-day injured list on Tuesday with what the Cubs said was a “moderate” strain of the hamstring.

It’s obviously a tough blow for Madrigal. He’s dealt with injuries and inconsistency in the two years since the Cubs acquired him in the Craig Kimbrel trade, but since being recalled from Triple-A Iowa a month ago, he’d been playing some of his best baseball. In those 19 games, he hit .328 with an .875 OPS and even hit his first homer as a Cub last Friday. The All-Star break softens the blow, but there’s no guarantee Madrigal returns when he’s eligible to be activated in on July 14.

“I was frustrated. I wanted to finish that game, but everything in my head told me ‘I’ve got to get out of here,'” Madrigal said. “These are important games. I want to be in there.”

And while it won’t be clear for a few more hours, the Cubs may also be missing Dansby Swanson’s services until after the break. While attempting to beat out a double play on Wednesday, Swanson landed awkwardly on first base. He left the game with a left heel contusion.

So, that could be another potential blow to the Cubs chances of ended the first half on the right note. Swanson did say Thursday that he was feeling better, but the Cubs still held him out of the game. But what means for this weekend series in New York is unclear. Swanson doesn’t know if he’ll play against the Yankees. He doesn’t know if he’ll play in or make the trip to the All-Star Game himself.

“I wish it was just simple and black and white, but it never seems to be that,” Swanson said. “I think tomorrow, just based on how I deal with the flight and getting in and all that kind of stuff, we’ll just be able to reevaluate a little bit tomorrow and have hopefully a clearer picture on what things will look like moving forward.”

All of this results in a weird situation for the Cubs. They’re not too far out of the division to be considered sellers right now, but time is running out. A series at Yankee Stadium won’t be easy, but that can’t really afford to let any of those games slip away from them heading into the break.

The trade deadline is less than a month away. Once they get past the All-Star break, the trade deadline will be 2 1/2 weeks away, and the front office will have less time than that to determine which direction they’ll go. That means, unless they do get off on a hot stretch, the deadline will become an even bigger deal for the trade chips on the roster.

“I definitely know what is possible,” said Bellinger, who . “But I like being here, focusing on helping this team win while I am here, and hopefully, we can get on a little roll and stay together. We have a really good group here. I still have confidence in the whole group.”

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