CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs catcher John Baker was asked if he wishes this version of his team was around at the beginning of the season. The Cubs are playing good baseball after beating the Washington Nationals again on Friday, 7-2, in another well-played game by the home team.
"Absolutely," Baker said. "It was rough going for us in the beginning of the year. [Anthony] Rizzo and [Starlin] Castro carried us for the last month or so. If we can get a couple of auxiliary players hot, we're a really tough team."
Everyone knows who those "auxiliary" players are: anyone not named Rizzo or Castro. Baker is one of them and he came through on Friday in his best game as a Cub. He was on base four times with three hits and four RBIs as starter Jason Hammel won for the seventh time. The Cubs won for the 21st time in their past 38 games, including 12 of their past 18 at home. That's not bad for a parity-filled National League.
"We're obviously very proud," Hammel said. "It's a long season. Today was my 16th start. That's halfway. We have a long way to go. We're trending in the right direction. That's all that matters."
But everyone knows Hammel and others will probably be gone by the trade deadline, dooming the Cubs for the second half. In fact, it will be a surprise if Hammel isn't traded. So any headway the Cubs are making is going to come to a halt. That doesn't take away from the way they're playing now, though. Good teams fight back when they get down, add on runs and win games with stars coming through as well as role players. The Cubs got all those things in the first two games of the series, both wins.
"They've been developing a personality as a team,” manager Rick Renteria said. "I think they've continued to chip away at who they are individually and as a club."
That sounds like a cliché but there is some truth to it. If not for Castro and Rizzo, all of this might feel a lot like last year when the Cubs did creep toward .500 near and after the All-Star break. But everything collapsed once trading season began and ended.
"You get the sense that someone is going to be gone, but you don't want them to be gone," Baker said. "I really hope Hammel stays around. We've developed a really good relationship."
Here's the point: If the Cubs didn't trade a single player, would they get back into the race? It's highly doubtful. If they played this way at the beginning of the season, would they be in the thick of things? It's possible, but there isn't enough talent to sustain a run. After all, the Cubs are only a few games over .500 over the past month or so. A bigger streak is needed. The offense is still a question mark.
"When that starts happening, our pitching is so good we should be in a lot of games," Baker said. "We should win a lot of baseball games."
A few wins is not a lot. But at least the Cubs stars are leading the way. When other positions are upgraded, that's when they can call themselves contenders. The step back -- for now -- occurs once Hammel and Jeff Samardzija are moved.
"Those are two guys you can build a rotation around and I hope they can stick around," Baker said.
Don't count on it.