CHICAGO -- Take a deep breath, Cubs fans. Losing nine of their last 11 games wasn't a great way to end the first half, but manager Joe Maddon has seen that before. In 2008, his Rays lost seven in a row before the All-Star break. They reached the World Series that year.
But the key will be Dexter Fowler. After the leadoff man exited with a hamstring strain, the Cubs went 7-15 and the lineup was totally out of whack. By moving Ben Zobrist into the leadoff spot, Maddon didn't have the protection he wanted for Anthony Rizzo.
The Cubs went 14-20 since June 5, and lost 2 1/2 games off their division lead in this stretch from 9 1/2 games on June 5 to seven games at the break.
"We got off to such a wonderful start," Maddon said. "You'd take this kind of lead going into the break any day of the week. [The recent struggles] just happened, and there are reasons why it's happened. You don't lament those reasons, you deal with it, and keep going out and playing hard like we did and eventually we'll get back on a nice streak."
Last year, the Cubs acquired Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard late in the season, and both provided help in the bullpen. Joel Peralta got a brief tryout but it didn't work. The Cubs are on the lookout for more arms. Who knows? Veteran Joe Nathan is rehabbing at Double-A Tennessee and could contribute late in the season. Trade chips include some of the young talent in the system.
WHAT ARE THEY PLAYING FOR?
The Cubs don't want to deal with a one-and-done Wild Card scenario again, so winning the division is key. They're off to a good start. Don't bother telling Maddon how much your 85-year-old grandmother wants to see the Cubs win a World Series in her lifetime. He doesn't care about curses or how long it's been since the Cubs won it all (1908, in case you didn't know). Maddon lives in the present, and emphasizes that to his players. As of today, the Cubs lead the NL Central, and that's all that matters.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The Cubs open the second half against the American League West-leading Rangers and then face the Mets, who swept a four-game series at Citi Field, a painful reminder of New York's sweep in the NL Championship Series last October. The Cubs also have a long western swing Aug. 19-28 vs. the Rockies, Padres and Dodgers coming up. They need to get injured players back (see below) and straighten out the bullpen.
When Fowler heads to the plate, Maddon tells him, "You go, we go," and it became evident that without the center fielder at the top of the lineup, the Cubs struggled. Fowler was sidelined June 19 with a strained hamstring, and the Cubs need him at full strength to get the rest of the lineup in order. It's not that Zobrist has done a bad job filling in for Fowler, but Maddon prefers having Zobrist bat either in front or behind Rizzo.
PROSPECTS TO WATCH
It was September in late June when the Cubs promoted five rookies in a short span. The key player was catcher Contreras, who will get most of the playing time. Right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. has done well out of the bullpen -- including an impressive outing Sunday against the Pirates -- and Albert Almora Jr. has flashed his defensive skills, even if he did nearly wipe out teammate Kris Bryant in an outfield collision.
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com 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.