PITTSBURGH –The Cubs haven’t been the best team in baseball for more than a month. They’ve had the record to prove it for most of the past week.
And the way the Pirates have clobbered their top two pitchers in Pittsburgh the last two days, the Cubs are starting to reopen the debate over the best team in the National League Central.
The Cubs still have a big lead in the division over both the Pirates (6½ games) and the Cardinals (seven).
But after Saturday’s 12-6 loss – which included All-Star starter Jon Lester blowing two early leads – they have a season-high five-game losing streak.
And even manager Joe Maddon said, “I feel like we’re fortunate enough to be in that position.”
With one game before the All-Star break, the Cubs have lost 15 of 20. That includes all five games in that stretch against the Cardinals and a Pirates team that seems to get significant contributions from as many young players – even rookies – as the Cubs.
Pirates touted prospect Josh Bell, for instance, hit a game-changing grand slam in the fifth off Adam Warren just one day after a big pinch single against Jake Arrieta during a game-winning rally in his big-league debut.
“We’re fortunate because we got off to such a wonderful start that we’re in this position,” said Maddon, whose Cubs jumped to a 25-6 record and owned the best record in the majors until Tuesday’s loss to the Reds. “You would take this kind of lead going into the break any day of the week, any day of the week.
“It’s just happened,” he said of the recent slump that has included key injuries and a nearly full-rotation slump by the starters. “There’s reasons why it’s happened. I’m not going to lament those reasons. You just deal with it, and you keep coming out and playing hard and working the process. And eventually we’ll go back on a nice streak, post-break, I really believe that.”
In the meantime, believe this: The starting rotation is a shell of its early-season self.
“It’s just part of baseball. It’s a long season,” said Lester, who kicked himself for an ugly three-inning, three-walk, two-homer start. “It seems like right now every time we make a mistake it’s hit hard. And it seems like early on we couldn’t do anything wrong.
“I’ll be the first to tell you, what we were doing early one was pretty impressive. But just like the pace we were on, we all knew it was not realistic. But at the same time we’ve got to be better.
“That starts with me tonight.”
The most telling numbers to describe the Cubs’ midseason malaise, and their biggest concern into the break?
Take your pick:
–Lester, who was 9-3 with a 2.03 ERA and after earning NL Pitcher of the Month for June, hasn’t reached the fourth inning in either of two starts since then – allowing five homers and 13 earned runs in 4 1/3 innings.
–In nine games this month, the Cub rotation doesn’t have a quality start .
–During the Cubs’ 20-game slump, the starters are 3-10 with just six quality starts and a 5.96 ERA – 41 earned runs allowed in 41 innings this month (9.00).
“Terrible. Unacceptable. Letdown,” Lester said when asked to sum up his start. “We all go through times when just like hitters you go through slumps.”
Said Maddon: “We’ve hit a little bit of a snag. My bigger concern would be if people were actually injured but they’re not. They’re well.
“I really anticipate things are going to be fine.”