Chicago Cubs face a vital August stretch of games

DYERSVILLE, IOWA - AUGUST 11: Nico Hoerner #2 of the Chicago Cubs scores off an RBI double by Ian Happ #8 during the first inning of the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Field of Dreams on August 11, 2022 in Dyersville, Iowa. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
DYERSVILLE, IOWA - AUGUST 11: Nico Hoerner #2 of the Chicago Cubs scores off an RBI double by Ian Happ #8 during the first inning of the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Field of Dreams on August 11, 2022 in Dyersville, Iowa. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs are about to enter into the most important portion of their schedule.

We’re not talking about importance on a 2022 scale here. For championship purposes, this season is shot. The Chicago Cubs are 18 games under .500 and a shaky third in the NL Central. Their best hope by season’s end is to hold off the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds, guaranteeing a mid-pack finish … for whatever that’s worth.

But as a statement about looking ahead to the 2023 season…that’s another story.

And that story will be told in a span of only a few days more than two weeks later this month for the Chicago Cubs.

Between August 19 and September 4, the Cubs’ schedule has them playing 14 games against the division’s two front-runners, the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. That 16-day schedule will go a long way toward revealing exactly how close the Cubs are to reaching contending status next season.

Superficially, they don’t look to be very close. The Cubs trail the Cardinals by 14.5 games entering play Sunday, and they trail the Brewers by 14 games.

Despite those numbers, though, there is reason to be optimistic if you are a Cubs fan. And that optimism will only ratchet up if the Cubs can hold their own in that marathon stretch against the division’s two top dogs.

A month or so ago, the late-August schedule looked like nothing approaching a legitimate test of Chicago’s ability to stand up against the division’s best. At the All-Star break, they were 35-57, just a half-game out of the division basement, and saddled with the game’s sixth-worst winning percentage, only nine points above .400.

Things have changed in subtle but important way since that break. First and most important, the Cubs have started winning. They’re 12-8 in the ensuing 20 games, and (with a schedule that includes three games against the Washington Nationals) that percentage could be on the upswing by the time the Brewers arrive at Wrigley Field on August 19.

That three-game series will be followed by five games against the Cardinals, after which the Cubs will play three at Milwaukee, three in Toronto, and another three over Labor Day weekend in St. Louis.

As bad as the Cubs’ 2022 season has been to date, they’ve actually played the Brewers and Cardinals pretty tough. Chicago has a 7-6 record against Milwaukee so far in 2022. And although they’re only 4-7 against the Cardinals, the games have mostly been competitive; three of those seven losses came by one or two runs.

Beyond that, there are real, if tentative, signs that the Cubs are coming around, both on offense and on the mound. In 20 games since the break, the Cubs have outscored opponents 79-62. In fact, in the 20 games preceding the break, the signs were already beginning to emerge. Although that stretch included a nine-game losing streak and concluded with just an 8-12 record, the Cubs were only outscored by eight runs.

Run the numbers back further and you find that since June 17, the Cubs have actually stood their ground against their opponents. They are 24-25 in that span and they have been outscored by exactly one run.

Had they played to that level over the course of the 2022 season to date, they’d only be five or six games out of the division lead approaching that aforementioned two-week stretch.

It’s too late to regret what might have been for 2022, but it’s not too late to speculate on what might be for 2023. Importantly, the past two months have also seen the emergence of a core of players with the potential to be cornerstones of a legitimate divisional contender next season.

To mention just a few:

  • Shortstop Nico Hoerner is batting .305 since June 1 with an OPS hanging around .800.
  • Starter Justin Steele has delivered a 2.48 ERA since June 1. Steele’s been even better than that: subtracting one bad June outing against the Pirates, his ERA since June 1 is 1.93.
  • Keegan Thompson has emerged as a reliable rotation piece. Since moving into the rotation in mid-May, he’s carrying a 7-5 record with a 4.00 ERA. Thompson’s unremarkable ERA is attributable to his tendency toward inconsistency, and the three or four disastrous starts that have resulted from it. Here’s the positive spin: In 10 of his 14 appearances since mid-May, Thompson has produced a 1.50 ERA. And despite the occasional glitches, he’s still carrying a 125 ERA+ on a scale where 100 represents an average major league pitcher.
  • Christopher Morel has legitimized the potential he showed when the Cubs called him up on May 17. He’s enjoying a solid .260 average with an .783 OPS that the Cubs would take any time.

None of this in and of itself makes the Cubs contenders for 2023. There remain obvious gaps, notably the lack of both a true number one starter and a true mid-order star.

dark. Next. Cubs and Cardinals heading overseas

But that two-week stretch of home-and-home with the NL Central’s two powerhouses will give the Chicago Cubs an opportunity to demonstrate that they deserve to be taken seriously next season. The question becomes whether they will take advantage of that opportunity.