ATLANTA -- Just how well is it going for the Chicago Cubs in the second half?
On Wednesday, a starter about to be pulled from the rotation pitched into the fifth inning without giving up a hit or walk, then hit his first career home run off a fastball from knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey of the Atlanta Braves. Then the guy who replaced reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant, who left the game holding his finger after sliding into third base in the first inning, hit a home run followed by a single while making all the plays in the field.
Everything is going right after a first half that went wrong in so many ways. The Cubs are a season-high-matching four games over .500 and are inching their way toward first place in the NL Central, making up four games since the All-Star break to sit 1½ games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. They haven't felt this good about themselves since around midnight last Nov. 3.
"We've had this energy since the beginning of the second half in Baltimore," manager Joe Maddon said after Wednesday's 8-2 win over the Braves. "I'm more into feel stuff. I'm feeling the guys more mentally involved and I love that."
The dugout is alive and even the clubhouse has a pre- and postgame energy to it. It's the first time the Cubs have ever swept a six-game road trip coming out of the All-Star break, according to Elias Sports Bureau research, and it's the first time they've won their first six post-break games (home or away) since 1935. They took down the Baltimore Orioles and then the Braves, outscoring them 44 to 17.
The Cubs hit .316 with a .377 on-base percentage and clubbed a league-leading 16 home runs over the past six games.
Their starters' ERA was a combined 2.00 over the past six games after compiling a 4.66 mark in the first half.
Javier Baez went 10-for-20, including 10 for his last 15 during the trip.
The trip was an early second-half test which included three rain delays, and the Cubs passed with flying colors. Maddon could not have been more proud.
"Magnificent," the manager exclaimed. "The rest definitely does help. The approach at the plate is a lot better. The whole field is being used."
And Bryant seems to be OK after spraining the pinkie finger on his left hand while sliding into third base. He might miss a day or two, which could be just fine as backup Tommy La Stella homered and singled after entering the game for Bryant.
"That spot in the order did not make an out until [La Stella] popped out in his last at-bat," Maddon said, referencing Bryant's first-inning double before departing.
As good as some of the Cubs hitters were, lefty Mike Montgomery was just as good on the mound -- and at the plate. He'll likely cede his spot in the rotation and head back to the bullpen when 2016 ERA leader Kyle Hendricks returns from the disabled list in the coming days, but Montgomery went out with a bang. He cracked a 393-foot home run and threw his best game of the season. He didn't take home a base, like Jon Lester did after swiping his first-ever bag on Monday, but he did get the home run ball back.
"I was happy about that. I got done pitching and came back in here and the ball was at my locker," Montgomery said with a smile before getting serious. "The All-Star break was great for us. Since we've been back, there is a great vibe around here. We're not too worried where we are in the standings, but we've been playing really good baseball."
That sentiment was repeated several times by different players after their latest win, but perhaps this trip meant the most for Russell. After a difficult first half that saw him go through a public separation from his wife and face accusations of domestic violence, he's starting to look like his old self again at the plate and says spending time with family during the break made the difference. He hit a dramatic game-winning home run in the ninth inning of the trip opener after the Orioles had fought back from an eight-run deficit to tie the game.
Russell's homer was one of two key plays during the win streak, according to Maddon. The other came when Contreras blocked a ball with the bases loaded and the tying run on third in game four against the Braves. Closer Wade Davis was about to blow his first save of the season, but Contreras helped keep him perfect.
Russell is sensing something different since the break.
"We're all on the same page," he said. "We're all-in. We're back to playing some Cubby baseball. Aggressive, having some fun and winning some ballgames."
Russell repeated that first part again later in his postgame interviews, so perhaps he's trying to start something -- maybe a new T-shirt slogan: "We're all-in."
The vibe everyone has been waiting for is definitely back, though considering the two teams the Cubs swept are below .500, there's still work to be done. And second place doesn't sit well with the defending world champions.
"The way we're approaching the game right now in the second half is the way we should be," said Kyle Schwarber. "We're having fun and sticking to business."