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First-place Cubs breaking even in the second half, not breaking away

CHICAGO -- It's that time of year, when we break down the first-place Chicago Cubs to assess whether their glass is half-full or half-empty. Putting aside the rest of the competition in the National League -- just for a moment -- there are some alarming trends for the two-time Central Division champions.

At a time of year when veteran manager Joe Maddon usually has his teams firing on all cylinders, the Cubs are having trouble starting the car. After a miserable 9-4 loss to the Washington Nationals on Saturday, Maddon's team dropped to 12-11 since the All-Star break. Not awful, but also not so wonderful for a team with World Series aspirations. Now here's where it gets interesting.

According to the Pythagorean formula, which factors in a team's luck in runs scored and allowed, the Cubs should actually be 9-14 in the second half. That looks a lot worse, doesn't it? Conversely, they were "unlucky" in the first half, when they should have essentially been four games better than they wound up, so overall the luck factor has kind of evened itself out for the Cubs so far this year. But here the glass-half-empty thought appears: The more recent trend is the more negative one, and if their second-half "luck" runs out, then what?

"Everything has vacillated," Maddon said after Saturday's loss. "We have to pitch better and be more consistent at the plate. We have to do that. ... We haven't done those two parts of the game consistently well, pitch and hit since the second half began to get on any kind of run."

Pitch and hit. Isn't that pretty much the entire game outside of defense? At least in that area, Maddon is satisfied with his team's play. But as much as a positive run differential has defined the Cubs since they became contenders in 2015, their mark in the second half of this season stands out: It's minus-22. They rank sixth in scoring in the second half -- down from first before the All-Star break -- and their ERA is an unseemly 4.97 since the break, ranking 13th in the NL.

"You have to keep staying positive with them [the players] and have to believe it's going to come back," Maddon said.

The stats say one thing and the eye test backs it up. The Cubs have squeaked by with some wins and have been blown out in some bad losses -- producing that negative run differential. On Friday, they were getting no-hit before the sixth inning happened. Nationals starter Jeremy Hellickson walked three straight batters with two outs and no one on base; the Cubs won the game 3-2. Other times, teams have imploded on defense -- out of nowhere -- again opening up chances to gobble up some wins. And the Cubs have. It's a credit to their perseverance to stay the course, which has resulted in some victories -- Rizzo's 13-pitch at-bat against Hellickson in that key inning being a great example.

But sometimes, those "lucky" runs end and all a team is left with are what it does at the plate and on the mound, which, right now, doesn't bode well for the Cubs.

That brings us to the glass being half-full.

"I feel good about the fact we are keeping our head above water while we're going through this moment," Maddon said.

In other words, they're getting wins when they don't necessarily deserve them, keeping the team in the race until they play better. With other teams, perhaps that better play would never show up, but these Cubs have talent and experience. And don't forget, as flawed as they can look for a team 18 games over .500, every single contender in the NL -- and the Central Division -- has its own flaws as well.

If the Cubs can stay the course long enough, perhaps good things are around the corner. After all, are they really going to rank 13th in pitching in the NL the rest of the way? That's a tough one to predict. And speaking of predictions, things still bode well for them: According to FiveThirtyEight, the Cubs have a 91 percent chance of reaching the postseason and a 75 percent chance of winning the division again.

It's at this point that Rizzo's often repeated mantra might apply. The Cubs need to weather the ups and downs, right now, hoping better days are ahead.

"It's never a good time to ride a roller coaster," Rizzo said. "I get motion sickness anyway."

So do Cubs fans when they see those second-half numbers, despite the Cubs' winning record.

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