Injuries derail Cubs' chase for history

Club cools down after strong beginning to season

Injuries derail Cubs' chase for history

CHICAGO -- On June 19, the Cubs had a 12 1/2-game lead in the National League Central, the best record in the Major Leagues, and Wrigleyville was prepping for a wild October party. The Cubs' rotation was tops in the National League, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant were slugging home runs left and right, and prospect Willson Contreras collected his first hit on the first pitch he saw in his first big league at-bat, a home run. The celebration room in the Cubs' sparkling new clubhouse was getting plenty of use.

But the baseball season is 162 games long, and on June 19, Cubs leadoff man Dexter Fowler was sidelined because of a right hamstring strain. There's no more talk about challenging the 1906 Cubs, who won 116 games.

The Cubs' goal this year was to win the division and avoid having to get to the playoffs via the Wild Card Game, which they did last year. The last month before the All-Star break has been a reality check. A much-needed 6-5 win on Sunday over the Pirates snapped a five-game losing streak.

The Cubs wanted to get off to a good start, and did that, thanks to solid pitching by starters Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks. They combined for a sub 3.00 ERA in the first half. Fowler led the way in April, batting .347, while Ben Zobrist provided the spark in May, hitting .406. It also helps to have a one-two punch of Rizzo and Bryant.

Rizzo's back-to-back jack

The Cubs lost Kyle Schwarber to a season-ending knee injury in the third game of the season, which immediately tested their outfield depth. The injuries mounted in June as Fowler, Tommy La Stella and Jorge Soler were all sidelined. Zobrist did fine as leadoff man but created problems in the rest of the lineup. The bullpen wasn't as strong in June (example: Justin Grimm's 10.38 ERA in seven games).

Cubs lose Schwarber for season

Arrieta is human. The reigning National League Cy Young winner won his first nine decisions, and then hit a rough spot. He did not win a game in which the Cubs scored fewer than four runs. They need Fowler. Jason Heyward is good at hitting balls right at people. The catching situation is in a state of flux. Addison Russell has more power than you might think. Bryant is not going to have a sophomore slump.

Fowler rejected the Cubs' qualifying offer last November and decided to test free agency. But the 30-year-old outfielder didn't get much interest. He surprised his Cubs teammates by returning in late February, and everything fell into place. He was the catalyst in April with a .474 on-base percentage, and stayed strong in May. A strained hamstring sidelined Fowler on June 19, and his presence was definitely missed.

Fowler's leadoff home run

In his second season with the Cubs, Lester looks more like his old self. The lefty won National League Pitcher of the Month honors after a 4-0 June in which he posted a 1.41 ERA. Forget the start against the Mets. He has, and so have the Cubs. Lester has corrected some mechanics from a year ago, is more comfortable in Chicago, and likes having buddy Lackey as his teammate.

Lester gets the All-Star nod

The Cubs didn't have a rookie on the 25-man roster until Albert Almora Jr. was called up June 7 in the team's 57th game. This was the latest the team has gone into a season before using a rookie. But it's Contreras, 24, who has made the biggest impact, beginning with his first big league at-bat on June 19 when he launched the first pitch he saw for a two-run pinch-hit home run. The goal was to have him be tutored by Miguel Montero and David Ross, but the future is now for Contreras.

Contreras homers to left

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.