Look past the long balls soaring out to left, and glance past the excitement of the Cubs’ four starting rookies cutting their teeth in a pennant chase.
There’s another catalyst to the Cubs, now 71-51, and he sits at the top of the lineup.
Dexter Fowler, who kicked off Sunday’s 9-3 win with a no-doubt, opposite-field homer to left, probably isn’t getting the credit he deserves, though he has been every bit as vital to the offensive chemistry as say, Anthony Rizzo. His career-high 14th homer on Sunday came a day after he hit a leadoff triple to jumpstart Saturday’s win over Atlanta. And it’s not just this weekend’s four-game set vs. the Braves, either. Pick any series since mid-July, and his impact has been felt.
“You go, we go,” is what Cubs manager Joe Maddon tells Fowler before every at-bat. “He’s really gotten the strike zone back in order, accepting his walks, hitting the ball hard on both sides.”
Since the All-Star break, Fowler is hitting .320 with an on-base percentage of .452. His OBP ranks third in the National League over that time frame, while his 83 runs scored rank fifth in all of baseball. In 34 games — the Cubs are 24-10 when he has played in the second half — there was exactly one game where he failed to reach base. And in the 10 games that he didn’t record a hit, he walked 13 times instead.
Not coincidentally, the Cubs’ offense has exploded post-All-Star break. In 35 second-half games, they're averaging 4.97 runs per game compared to the 3.85 they averaged throughout the first 87 games of the season when Fowler not-so-secretly struggled at gauging the strike zone.
“There was times, some calls out of the zone, and I’d get down on myself,” he said from the Cubs’ locker room after Sunday’s sweep. “Not letting those effect me too much.”
Fowler credited Maddon with teaching him how to let go of poor at-bats.
The other component of Fowler’s surge is that he has a dangerously potent lineup sitting behind him. The quartet of Kyle Schwarber (10), Chris Coghlan (seven), Rizzo (nine) and Kris Bryant (seven) have combined for 33 homers in the second half. The Cubs' 36 homers in the month of August lead all of baseball.
“Anytime you have a leadoff hitter that’s doing what he’s doing right now, it kind of relaxes everybody else,” Maddon said. “You anticipate good to happen because of what he’s doing. That’s probably the best way I can describe it. I don’t know that it’s taking pressure off anybody else. They see him getting on base, and it’s just a confidence builder. 'OK, he did it, we can do it.' That kind of a thing. His at-bats are good. 'He’s laying off breaking balls down, fastball in the zone, he’s hitting it hard. I can do that too.' I think it’s more of that than anything else.”
In other words, by taking pitches and working an opponent’s starter, he has become the quintessential leadoff hitter the Cubs hoped for when they traded for him this past offseason. Just for reassurances, though, don't think that his new-found pop has gone to his head.
“I just try to get on base and let the big boys do what they need to do."