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[Ed. – The following is a guest post from freelance reporter and ESPNChicago.com contributor, Sahadev Sharma. If you’re familiar with Sahadev’s work, you’ll understand what a privilege it is to get to put something of his up here in this space. I’m tickled.]

In all likelihood, you’re already well aware that the Cubs are 14-5 since June 25th, which is the best record in baseball during that stretch. (Oh arbitrary endpoints, you can make even the crappiest of teams look good!) You’re also probably aware that the most anticipated Cubs debut in a quite a while, Anthony Rizzo’s, took place on June 26th, a day after this surprising run started.

The simplistic (and frankly, lazy) answer to why the Cubs are suddenly playing well would be that Rizzo’s presence has suddenly vaulted them onto a higher level of play. That obviously isn’t the case, since the arrival of one player, no matter how good, can’t suddenly make the worst team in baseball the best. It just doesn’t happen, not in this sport.

Rizzo taking over at first base every day for the past three weeks has definitely improved the club, but there are other reasons why this team is playing good baseball over that stretch.

For brevity’s sake, from here on out, I’ll refer to the Cubs’ recent winning ways as The Streak, which I decided to use instead of the more snarky, The Mirage.

Here are just a few of the reasons the Cubs are finally looking like a competent franchise on the field in 2012.

Paul Maholm 

Maholm was dominant once again in Thursday afternoon’s 4-2 victory over the Miami Marlins. Maholm tossed eight innings of one-run ball, add that to his previous three starts, all during The Streak, and Maholm has a 0.92 ERA in 29 1/3 innings pitched with 19 strikeouts and only three walks. Those three walks, paired with the fact that he hasn’t allowed a home run, have been key for Maholm because he’s still been giving up hits (7 H/9) during The Streak. By avoiding free passes and the long ball, Maholm has been able to limit the damage the hits may have caused. Of course, the added bonus to all of this is that the timing of this spectacular run from Maholm gives the Cubs another pitching commodity that could be moved for prospects.

Jeff Baker and Reed Johnson

Remember when the Cubs were oh-fer in their first nine games against lefties, leading to a 2-16 start overall against southpaws? During The Streak, they’re 7-2 when a lefty takes the mound. Possibly the biggest reason for that turnaround are the hot bats of Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker. While Baker and Johnson embarrassed lefties in 2011 before they both hit the DL in June, neither was producing this year, regardless of the pitcher’s handedness that they faced. On June 24th, Baker was posting an overall line of .238/.292/.338 (.235/.298/.353 vs LHP) and Johnson wasn’t anything special at .283/.346/.403 (.268/.328/.411 vs LHP). During The Streak, Baker has gone off at .438/.455/.875 with three homers and five doubles in 33 plate appearances (.423/.423/.846 vs LHP). Johnson is at .400/.400/.657 (.524/.524/.952 vs LHP) and has played his usual stellar defense. Dale Sveum was frequently ridiculed for sticking with the same lineup against lefties throughout the struggles, but his faith in Baker and Johnson has finally paid off.

Carlos Marmol

Marmol isn’t the dominant force he was in 2010 when he carried an eye-popping 16 K/9 in his first season as the full-time closer. It’s unlikely that he’ll ever reach that level again, but Marmol has been better during The Streak. While he’s still walking too many people (9.9 BB/9 on the season and eight walks in 8 1/3 innings since June 25th), he’s temporarily back to an elite K-rate of 14.1 K/9. Marmol’s been trusting his fastball more (or at least he’s been forced to do so, it’s been reported that he’s been ordered to not shake off his catcher since he returned to his role as closer) and that’s led to some better results. Marmol is still consistently maddening, and one never knows when the bottom may fall out. But, over the past three weeks, he’s been a significant improvement over what Cubs’ fans witnessed during the better part of the first three months of the season.

All this isn’t to say that Rizzo isn’t a huge part of the Cubs now and in the future. Not only has he produced with the bat (.338/.365/.563), but he’s provided stellar defense. His ability to scoop many throws that are bounced to first, something that Bryan LaHair struggled with, has really reduced the infield throwing errors, especially from Starlin Castro.

But it’s what he’ll provide off the field that makes him all the more valuable. Rizzo, whom Jason McLeod once told me has the greatest makeup of any prospect he’s ever been around, is sure to develop into a leader in the clubhouse. Just 18 games into his Cubs career, he’s already earned the respect of his teammates. In a few years, while he may not be the best player on the team, he’ll undoubtedly be the catalyst that ensures strong team chemistry.
For a stat nerd like myself, it’s sometimes difficult to accept just how important immeasurable attributes like leadership and makeup are to a team. But there’s no doubt that Rizzo’s positive influence off the field is a good thing for the Cubs.

In a few years, the Cubs hope that an influx of young talent will be coming up to the big league club. Having a steady influence for those kids like Rizzo’s – along with his strong bat in the lineup – is something the Cubs will find invaluable.

But all of that, plus his performance so far, isn’t the sole reason the Cubs are currently the hottest team in baseball.

  • EQ76

    some honorable mentions on why they’ve been good could also include Dempster not giving up any runs and the Shark bouncing back.. that’s helped too!

    • ETS

      Our bullpen has been much, much better over the stretch as well, but that’s a by-product of the good starting pitching and not having to use as many BP guys. Russell and Camp have been great all year.

  • leroy k.

    Very good article.

    • Wilbur

      Agreed …

  • Brent

    Are there really a lot of fans out there that think Anthony Rizzo is the sole reason for The Streak? He’s a big part of it, but I doubt that there were many non-fringe fans who thought that way before reading this article.

    • leroy k.

      I could see it!!!! lol

  • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

    I don’t think I’d blame anyone for referring to this run as “The Mirage.” It doubles as a subtle play off the giant heat wave that was baking the Midwest when the streak began. I like it.

  • Dan

    I was at the game yesterday and for once, it was nice for the Cubs to win. But there’s always someone at the ballpark that is loud and obnoxious, and to not to my surprise, it was a Sox fan…

    • DaveS

      I was there as well and had a very similiar experience myself. Are there any louder more obnoxious fans than WhiteSox?

      • ChaChi

        Yes there are, they are called Cardinals fans. Have to be the most obnoxious anti-Cubs fans there are. And they love to hate the Cubs more than they love their own team. Honestly it’s quite a sickness down there.

        • Wilbur

          I’m from deep downstate and there’s nothing worst than a Cardinal commenting on the Cubs.

          They are not only are obnoxious about the W/L records and World Championships (that you must grudgingly accede to them as they were won on the field), but they assume a certain moral superiority because they did it the “Cardinal Way” and anyone or anything Cub must fail because it is part of Cubdom.

          • PRcajun

            I agree…lived in southern IL for ~6yrs and went to many Cards-Cubs games at old and new Busch. Nothing better than watching the Cubs win down there.

    • Frank

      I believe that there are few, if any, actual White Sox fans. They are all anti-Cub fans.

  • Leo L

    He is the only reason we are winning. trade everyone else away, we dont need them. Actually talking about this yesterday. i thought another reason was 3rd base. Villlaneuba doing ok and stewart was really struggling. Our starting pitching has been good overall but we couldnt score any runs. Rizzo and Villanueba (instead of stewart and Byrd) has made a difference. Another reason is soriano hitting for power.

  • @cubsfantroy

    I just hope they don’t trade Maholm. I’ve liked that signing since it happened and would like to see him stick around long term, or at least 3 or 4 more years. I am enjoying this streak right now and am looking forward to seeing what happens in the next week plus leading up to the deadline.

  • cubchymyst

    So many players playing excellent right before the trade deadline. Will be interesting to see how many are still around after it passes. I’ll enjoy “The Mirage” while it lasts because come august this team could have an all new look.

  • Andy

    Love seeing Mr. Sharma on here. He’s a must-follow on Twitter.

  • Ivy Walls

    Quick comparison: The last undefeated team in Men’s College BB (Indiana 1975-76) had four better players on the court (statistically) than Quinn Buckner, a point guard who couldn’t shoot well outside of 10 feet, not a great at penetrating, though he was a deft passer and extraordinary on ball and team defender. But the moment he walked on the team as a freshman IU went from being a “so what” with great individual stars starting with George McGinnis, Steve Green, Scott May, Bobby Wilkerson, Kent Benson, John Laskowski among others it was Quinn Buckner who made the difference in the team winning or losing. After playing football as a freshman he joined the BB team and led the team to the Final Four as their freshman point guard. But Buckner only averaged 10 pts a game as a collegian.

    Knight told me personally often, Buckner was the toughest player on the court, in the building, physically and mentally—he was relentless in practice and preparation and unabashed at admonishing fellow players for not being prepared. He is one of only three players in history to have won titles at every level: high school, (repeat IHSA IL undefeated) college, the NBA, and the Olympics. (The other two are Magic Johnson and Jerry Lucas, interestingly a teammate of Bob Knight at OSU.)

    Rizzo appears better as a statistical contributor but could he be like Youklis of the old Boston teams under Epstein.

  • Pat

    I can’t believe he completely missed the Stacey Kiebler correlation.

    • PRcajun

      LOL

  • CubsfanKevin

    Yay! something from Sahadev that is not propping up Castro!

    An interesting read. I am not sure who this is written for though. Are there people who believe that Rizzo is the reason? Maybe these are the same ones that suggest the Cubs patience at the plate in 2008 was a result of Fukudome.

  • Sahadev Sharma

    I don’t think I was directing the “Rizzo is the reason the Cubs are winning” line of thinking at any specific group of fans. It’s just something I have read, heard on the radio (by both callers and hosts) and heard mentioned in random conversations. So I wasn’t really taking a dig at anyone specifically, just trying to get to my main point of why this team is suddenly winning.

    There are reasons that I left off the list, primarily Dempster and how the bottom of the order (Barney, Clev, Soto, Valbuena, etc) has come through with some key hits. But what I mentioned was what stood out to me and what I could really back up with some facts. Demp only made two starts over The Streak, so I didn’t include him for that reason, otherwise he’d be at/near the top.

    And yes, I am a shameless Castro apologist. If you’ve read my BP article on him, you know my reasons. I’m confident he’ll make me look good soon enough.

    • CubsfanKevin

      I did read your article at BP. I enjoyed it, thank you. How do i phrase this while not sounding crazy…..
      Do you think/feel that calling up Castro in 05/10 has ultimately stunted his growth? I feel this is so.

      I want to enjoy his performance more. I just can’t get passed his lack of growth. I feel if he were still in the minors(not at present time) longer he would have been in an environment that may have corrected some of his less than desirable traits. Thoughts?

      I concur w/Andy, you’re a must follow on Twitter. Not baseball fan? Fine, Sahadev is a Jr. Cicerone.

    • PRcajun

      Great piece, Sahadev!

      I agree that the reasons (and individual performance of players throughout The Streak) are probably too many to name. But what about …wait for it….

      Soriano?????

      .294avg, 3HR, 10RBI (…and 2SB) during The Streak….I know the 2SB is a reach, but it was better than pointing out his 19SO.

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