ATLANTA — Even after a 4-1 loss to the Braves on Wednesday night at SunTrust Park, the Cubs have won six of their last nine and remain just two games out of first in the division.
So imagine what the season might look like if the starting rotation had been pitching like the one manager Joe Maddon said in spring training looked like the best he has had in four seasons in Chicago.
RELATED STORIES Zo fought the law — and might win the right to wear all-black shoes for Cubs This time leg cramp ends short start for Yu Darvish in Cubs’ 3-2 win over Braves
As the Cubs’ season hit the quarter mark in rainy Georgia, the team still is waiting for its three big starting-pitching acquisitions over the last 10 months to catch up to the pace Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks have set.
For all the talk about the lineup and fielding issues this year, this is the group that has the most power to dictate which direction the rest of the season goes.
“I’m eager to watch it play out because I think these guys are so good, and we’re hanging in there so well while they’re not pitching to their capabilities yet,” Maddon said. “And I know they’re going to.”
One night after $126 million free agent Yu Darvish returned from the disabled list (flu) but then cramped up in the fourth inning, $38 million free agent Tyler Chatwood showed promise in solving a seasonlong problem with walks, saying it was “the best I’ve felt” all year.
Chatwood leads the majors in walks, one of the reasons he has lasted fewer than six innings in five of eight starts.
Struggling Jose Quintana, who was acquired in a trade-deadline deal from the White Sox last July, takes another shot at improving his 5.23 ERA and 1.60 WHIP on Saturday against the Reds.
“This is a good starting group, and they haven’t pitched to their capabilities and they’re going to,” Maddon said. “That’s what excites me.”
Meanwhile, Darvish is winless and has failed to pitch five innings in five of seven starts. Quintana’s velocity has been down in some starts along with, it seems, his faith in attacking the strike zone.
“It’s almost like a group that’s not hitting, and you know they’re a good hitting team and they’re going to hit,” Maddon said.
One byproduct is the weight on a bullpen that already has been leaned on hard at times.
Carl Edwards Jr., who spent five weeks as one of the top setup men in baseball, struggled for the third straight appearance when the top of the Braves’ young lineup turned a 1-1 game into a victory with a big eighth inning.
“Confidence is high still,” said Edwards, who retired only one of six he faced. “You have good times, and you get your days. Right now it’s my time to figure something out, and I feel like my next time out I’ll go out there scoreless and I’ll get back to where I was from the start.”
Still, the bullpen is the least of the Cubs’ issues. The rotation stragglers are the most significant.
And that could make Chatwood’s start the most important event of the day for the Cubs.
He gave up a quick run in the first on a leadoff double and a one-out single but didn’t walk a batter until the fourth.
That marked only the second time all season Chatwood went three consecutive innings without a walk. His longest streak was four innings in an April 29 start against the Brewers.
He finished with just two walks but was pulled from the game with one out in the sixth after allowing a single to Ronald Acuna and with Freddie Freeman (8-for-15, including a first-inning single) due up. Chatwood had thrown only 79 pitches.
“I felt strong. I felt my mechanics were in sync,” said Chatwood, who has been working daily to break “bad habits” in his delivery. “Now I need to build on that. Today was a step in the right direction.”