Cubs midseason: No panic despite recent slump

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Long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans might be feeling panic as their team struggled through a three-week swoon heading into the All-Star break.

The Cubs went 6-15 over their last 21 games as starting pitching and the bullpen struggled and injuries continued to mount.

But after closing the first half with an encouraging 6-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, the Cubs remain in an enviable spot as they gear up for the final 12 weeks of the 2016 season.

Now 53-35, Chicago is on track to match last year’s 97-victory benchmark.

“We’re fortunate because we got off to such a wonderful start that we’re in this position,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon recently told reporters. “You would take this kind of lead going into the break any day of the week.”

His team owns a seven-game lead over their closest rival in the NL Central and remain the division favorite.

And struggling through adversity now may have a payoff down the road.

Chicago boasts some of baseball’s leading hitters as well as a respectable .254 team batting average. They also have the biggest run differential in the league (plus-139) and a franchise-record 120 first-half home runs.

Notably, third baseman Kris Bryant tops the NL with 25 homers plus a .280 average and team-high 64 RBIs.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo is batting .299 with 21 homers. Entering Sunday he also had a .416 on-base percentage and .591 slugging percentage.

Infielder Ben Zobrist has discovered a fountain of youth at age 35 and is hitting .283 with 13 home runs and 47 RBIs. The versatile Javier Baez is batting .272 through 71 games with nine homers and 30 RBIs.

But outfielder Jason Heyward, who signed a multi-million dollar offseason deal, has been relatively disappointing with a .243 average, four homers and 27 RBIs.

A recent funk experienced by top starters Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey shouldn’t last. The trio already have a collective 28 wins while fellow starters Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks have seven apiece.

“I really anticipate they’re going to be fine,” Maddon said. “They’re going to get back to where they had been. It happens. I’ve seen it happen before. It’s just a moment that we’re going through.”

And even with recent struggles, the Cubs’ 3.34 ERA entering Sunday was second in the NL behind Washington (3.30 ERA).

But the bullpen has been spotty of late and is a legitimate second-half concern. So is the health of a trio of outfielders currently on the disabled list.

Through it all Maddon has remained a calming presence in public and the clubhouse, and senior management has not pushed the panic button with personnel changes except around the edges.