CHICAGO — How hot are the Cubs running?
Forget for a second about Kris Bryant hitting five home runs in his last eight games, Old Man Jon Lester shrinking his ERA to 1.16 or the Cubs going 9-0-1 in their last 10 series.
Consider that it rained every moment of every day (or so it seemed) during the Cubs' 10-game homestand, creating what could have been a sloppier track than the Kentucky Derby had. Yet there was not a single weather delay.
That's more stunning than a team going 21-6 after a 3-8 start.
How have the Cubs been getting it done? Here are five explanations:
1. The ultimate utility guy
Bryant subbed for Anthony Rizzo (tight back) at first base Sunday. And despite not having taken ground balls at the position in, by his estimate, "maybe a year and a half," he came up aces in the first inning.
With Lorenzo Cain at first, Bryant fielded a chopper from Christian Yelich. Had Bryant immediately stepped on the bag and fired to second, Cain might have darted back safely to first. So Bryant faked a throw to second and then hustled to the bag, catching Cain in a pickle.
"Really smart," manager Joe Maddon said.
Bryant, who played some first base at the University of San Diego, called it "instincts."
In the fifth Bryant smoothly handled a two-hop smash from Yelich, shifting sideways in a way that would have made Rizzo blush.
"It's fun to give Rizz a hard time, saying, 'I can do it (too),' " Bryant said.
Bryant has started at first, third and both corner outfield spots this season, prompting Lester to call him "kind of an uber-super-utility guy. And his offense speaks for itself."
His bat was quiet early this season after left shoulder inflammation hampered him last year, but Bryant has surged in May with a .510 on-base percentage, five homers and 13 RBIs in 11 games.
"He is starting to look like the Kris of old, feeling healthy, and that's a huge boost for our club," Lester said.
2. Another gear?
Lester and Bryant engaged in a fun debate after the game. In short, are we seeing peak Javier Baez?
"I feel like he's been playing well," Lester said, "but I don't really feel like he's been hot. ... He hasn't gotten Javy hot."
Baez does lead the Cubs with 49 strikeouts in 161 at-bats, if anyone still cares about that stat. But he also leads the team in homers (11), slugging (.627) and WAR (2.5) and is tied with Rizzo for the RBI lead (29).
Maybe because Bryant knows precisely how hard it is to thrive at the plate, he replied to Lester's take with a smiling rebuke: "I don't know what Jon is watching. Javy is on base all the time, getting hits. Jon is completely wrong.
"There might be another whole level to his game. He's been one of the best players in the whole game, so I think he's pretty hot."
Baez went 2-for-3 with a walk and an RBI double Sunday, but the play that had everyone buzzing came in the field. With a man at first and the hefty Jesus Aguilar running from third, Baez fielded a slow grounder. Rather than try for the inning-ending double play, he fired a seed to the plate to cut down Aguilar.
"Big-time play," former shortstop Alex Rodriguez commented in the ESPN booth.
Baez put so much of his body into the throw, he ended up facedown on the wet grass.
"He changes the outcome of the game regardless of how he's doing at the plate," Lester marveled.
Maddon said the key was that Baez "processed the play before it occurred," deciding he would go home because of Aguilar's lack of speed.
Baez has hit safely in a career-high-tying 11 straight games. Lester expects even more from him, if possible.
"I think Javs gets better the more he plays," he said. "You see him making strides with the approach that he takes. You'll see him swing at a 58-foot slider or curveball, but then the next one he'll put in the seats. I don't think there's too much of a ceiling on what he can do."
3. First things first
Lester has not allowed an earned run in three straight starts. Kyle Hendricks has not surrendered an earned run this month. Jose Quintana has had one bad start out of eight. Cole Hamels leads the team in innings pitched (49 2/3) and has the best WHIP (1.07) among the starters.
As for Yu Darvish, well, he at least is much improved as a teammate this season, frequently chatting with fellow Cubs in the clubhouse before games.
4. Shutting the door
The bullpen's 180 is so central to the Cubs' surge, it's the first thing Maddon mentioned after being asked if he could be any happier with how his team is performing. He praised the group for its "different skill sets."
Brandon Kintzler, for example, has a terrific ground-ball-inducing sinker. He's also functional with the glove. Brewers left fielder Ben Gamel hit an absolute screamer back to the mound in the eighth, and Kintzler snared it.
"That ball caught him," Maddon joked.
5. Acing chemistry
These guys pick each other up. Willson Contreras fired a one-hopper to second on an Orlando Arcia steal attempt. Daniel Descalso snagged it and used his left leg to block the bag. Runner out. Stat benefit goes to Contreras.
"We trust everybody on this team," Bryant said. "So it's really fun to be a part of."
Lester endured a Kyle Schwarber adventure in left that resulted in a three-base error to rack up his fifth quality start. And Bryant helped the team survive Rizzo's absence.
"It's always next guy up," Bryant said.
Lester kidded Rizzo after the 4-1 victory that having a personal catcher would not suffice.
"I told him I'm going to have a personal lineup going forward," Lester said. "Every five days he will have off."