ST. LOUIS — “Will Kris Bryant ever hit again?”
I wrote those words the last time the Cubs were at Busch Stadium. It was two games into the season, and Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, was off to an 0-for-9 start.
My question was tongue-in-cheek, of course, no more serious than asking if Earth would continue to rotate or if the President had any tweets left in him. Yet enough tone-deaf Cubs fans ripped me for prematurely pressing the panic button that I had to wonder if my own game was regular-season ready.
So here we are, back in St. Louis for a weekend series against the rival Cardinals, and about that panic button? No one should be pressing it, at least not in earnest. But the Cubs are 17-17, in fourth place in the NL Central, and not playing as well as even a disappointing record like that indicates.
Gazing at the button from across the room? Yeah, that might be appropriate.
Nearing the quarter pole of the season, the Cubs have quite a list of things that aren’t going well. There’s the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment, to name one, though why pick on him? Aside from Bryant, hardly anyone is doing much hitting of the baseball. Even the defense, which was supposed to be the backbone of the team, has been leaky.
Most troubling to me, though, is the starting pitching. It hasn’t looked anything like it did last season.
Enter Eddie Butler, who’ll make his first start as a Cub in Friday’s series opener. The 26-year-old right-hander, acquired from the Rockies in February, was called up this week after posting a minuscule 1.17 ERA in five starts at AAA Iowa.
Butler, a Rockies first-round draft pick in 2012, has yet to make his mark in the big leagues. In 36 career appearances — 28 of them as a starter — he’s 6-16 with a 6.50 ERA. Chalk up some of that to pitching in Denver, but still. This is the guy who’s going to stop the bleeding?
Maybe a surprise success story is the shot in the arm the 2017 Cubs need. Maybe Butler can cool off the first-place Cardinals — who are on a 16-5 tear and just ripped off a 6-0 road trip, the first unbeaten trip of at least six games in franchise history — by picking up where he left off at Iowa. He had a terrific spring, too, the only Cubs starter to post a sub-1.00 WHIP (0.95).
Is Butler a changed pitcher? That’s what he told me in Mesa. Matter of fact, he was confident as all get-out.
“I think it’s going to be a great year,” he said. “I’m fighting for a spot in the rotation. I plan on making the team. If I don’t, I’ll go down to AAA and work as hard as I can and be ready when the time comes. I’ll pitch well and get my shot.”
Nailed it. How about that?
The Cubs weren’t going to have room for Butler on their season-opening roster no matter how well he pitched, but they were impressed. It was impossible not to be.
“He’s got a great arm and is a strike-thrower, too,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He has shown really well for me. His stuff is well above average, velocity-wise, and [he has] a really good breaking ball. I think he’s very interesting.”
What a fine time it would be for Butler to get his career all the way off the ground. Even if he doesn’t, the Cubs will be in good shape if Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks get dialed-in again, John Lackey remains competitive and Jake Arrieta puts some pieces back together. Yet the longer it takes them to do those things, the more a guy like Butler has a chance to really make a difference — to make his mark.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he said a couple of months back.
He earned this opportunity. Now comes the hard part.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.