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Can Cubs reverse 1½ months of ‘bad baseball’ and get hot again?

Ben Zobrist drives in a go-ahead run in Thursday's third inning.

Now that the Cubs have turned a potential playoff weakness into one of the more imposing late-inning relief corps in the league, it’s up to all the guys not named Aroldis Chapman to rediscover the kind of baseball that made them look like the best team in baseball earlier this season.

The Cubs still have the best record in the game. But whether you start the clock on May 11 or June 20 or the All-Star break, they haven’t looked anything like the best in baseball.

“That’s what’s pretty crazy about the whole thing is that we have played bad baseball over the last month and a half probably, as a team, and we still won enough games to stay there,” veteran Ben Zobrist said. “That’s how good we were at the start.”

Maybe Chapman, their new triple-digit closer, will help change the look of that “bad” baseball.

More likely, it will start with the starting pitching and will need a warming trend from an inconsistent lineup.

For now this is a team playing barely .500 ball (35-34 through Wednesday) since improving to 25-6 on May 10 – and just 13-20 since reaching a high-water mark of 27 games over .500 on June 19.

“I really believe we have another really good run in us, like we did earlier in the season,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Maybe not as dramatic, but there’s definitely another good run in us as our pitchers get their feet on the ground again.”

Because of its historic-pace start the first 2½ months of the season, the starting pitchers still lead the majors in rotation ERA.

But it’s been up and down since:

  • During a 6-15 slide into the All-Star break, the rotation produced a 6.04 ERA;
  • In the first six starts out of the break: a 1.54 ERA in 41 innings as the team won back-to-back series.
  • The next six starts: 7.60 in 33 2/3 innings (the Cubs going 3-3).

Then John Lackey pitched a strong six innings (four hits, one run) Thursday night to hand a one-run game against White Sox ace Chris Sale over to the Cubs’ refurbished bullpen. Zobrist drove in the go-ahead run with a single up the middle in the third.

Maddon hasn’t ruled out dropping another spot starter into the middle of the rotation schedule, like he did with the since-traded Adam Warren just before the All-Star break, to give the starters an extra day of rest again. Trevor Cahill, who’s starting in the minors after rehabbing a knee injury, would be the likeliest candidate.

Meanwhile, the team’s scoring this month is down a run per game, some of that caused by leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler’s month on the DL (June 19-July 22). A cooling trend by Ben Zobrist (.345 average with a .445 on-base percentage through May) and continuing struggles of Jason Heyward also have contributed.

“Everybody was talking about how good we were,” Zobrist said of the torrid start by the team. “We brought ourselves back down to a normal level in the last month and a half, and we know that we’re capable of much more.

“I don’t think that anybody’s satisfied with the best record in the league,” he added. “Regardless of whether we’re winning the division or have the best record in the league, we want to play good baseball.”

Maybe the return of outfielder Jorge Soler (hamstring) will help. Team officials say he’s healthy again but still working on regaining his timing at the plate during a minor-league rehab assignment. He might be a candidate to rejoin the roster by sometime next week.

Outfielder Chris Coghlan (rib cage) also is close, Maddon said.

Zobrist, who won a ring with the Kansas City Royals last year, said Maddon might be right about a second surge coming.

Last year, the Cubs made their transformation into a playoff team the final two months of the season – going 45-18 after July 28.

“You have to get hot, and we haven’t been hot since – what was it, May?” Zobrist said. “We’ve been cold for a while. We know that we’ve got it in us to get hot and get hot for a long time. So we hope that’s coming, and we’ve just got to play it one game at a time.”