<
>

Jake Arrieta ends Chicago Cubs' first half with a bang

CHICAGO -- How did you like the Chicago Cubs' first half? "Pleased but not satisfied" is the vibe coming from the clubhouse after the team salvaged the final game of the weekend series with a 3-1 win over the crosstown rival Chicago White Sox.

For the first time since 2009, the Cubs are in the playoff race at the All-Star break, thanks in part to Jake Arrieta's nine-inning masterpiece Sunday, which included his first career home run.

"We have a pretty good record," Anthony Rizzo said. "The grind of our schedule is over, for the most part. We've just battled every series. [I'm] not saying the second half is going to be any easier, but it should be in our favor."

Right there is major hope for Cubs fans. Most of the time, Rizzo won't acknowledge more than what's right in front of him, but the break is a time to look up and take a peek around. Rizzo's first and lasting thought of the first half was the grind and the competition his team has faced. June and a part of July were rough in both departments, while August and September play much more in the Cubs' favor. Bring on the Philadelphia Phillies.

"The dog days are going to come," Rizzo continued. "I think, with meaningful games, we're playing for a lot more than just our numbers. We're playing for an entire city and some hungry fans."

That could mean the dog days will be filled with adrenaline for a group of players who have never had that feeling in the second half. If Arrieta continues at his current pace, the Cubs have found their ace for the postseason. It shouldn't come as a shock that the righty quickly surpassed Jon Lester (and Jason Hammel) as the Cubs' most reliable pitcher. His breakout season last year gave us a glimpse of what he could do.

"His stuff is among the elite level of major league pitchers," Maddon said after Sunday's complete-game win. "There's no question."

Also, Arrieta can hit. That might come in handy in a one-game playoff against the Pittsburgh Pirates. If the season ended today, the Cubs would play in Pittsburgh for the right to move on to the next round of the postseason. But the season doesn't end now, and the final 75 games will be the Cubs' most important since the Ricketts family bought the team. Maddon truly believes there is another level of play for his team to get to. Why stop now?

"We still have to get better at moving the baseball in moments," he said. "That's one of the things we have to get better at in the second half to get to the promised land."

In other words, the Cubs need more timely contact, or it will be a mental struggle the whole way. Rizzo actually cited a less talked about aspect of the team that he believes will be the backbone down the stretch.

"Our defense has come a long way," he said. "Later in the season, we're not going to be winning 8-5 or 7-6. It's 2-0, 2-1, 3-1. We have to play really good defense. The bats will come. That's baseball."

With every passing game comes experience for three integral players. Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler are nowhere close to what they could become, both on offense and defense. Even a glimpse of their potential in the second half could spark the team. The addition of Kyle Schwarber by September will complete the latest cycle of young talent to reach the majors this season. Will that be enough?

"Seven-plus [over .500] going into the break -- I'll take that," Maddon said. "Because I do believe there is a lot to look forward to on the other side."