PITTSBURGH — Under different circumstances, the Cubs’ two-city trip to Pittsburgh and St. Louis could’ve been an opportunity to climb the National League Central standings.
So far, it has done nothing but create space between the Cubs and the teams directly above them.
After a 7-1 loss to the Pirates on Tuesday, the Cubs slid to 25-43, 31⁄2 games behind the third-place Pirates. If it wasn’t already clear that the Cubs would be sellers at the deadline, two losses to the Pirates certainly didn’t make the Cubs look like contenders for the division crown or even second place.
Until the Cubs’ rotation gets healthy, the team is in for more games like the first two of this four-game series.
“I’m tired of talking about the back-end guys saving [the bullpen],” manager David Ross said. “We’ve got to do a better job from the get-go and get ourselves in some ballgames.”
While the Cubs wait for Marcus Stroman (right shoulder), Drew Smyly (right oblique) and Wade Miley (left shoulder) to return from the injured list — which isn’t imminent — several of their starters have been working through mechanical issues in recent weeks.
Any pitcher, no matter how experienced, can hit a mechanical rut. Former Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel’s 2020 season is a perfect example. The Cubs pulled him from the closing role that year and turned his season around through behind-the-scenes work. He went from a 23.63 ERA in his first four outings to not allowing a run in September.
The Cubs are doing something similar with top prospect Caleb Kilian by optioning him to Triple-A Iowa.
“Working on things at this level and putting the pressure on yourself is not always the easiest spot to do it,” Ross said after the move Tuesday.
The Cubs, however, don’t have the flexibility to let every young pitcher who is battling mechanical issues address them in the minor leagues, or even in a less prominent role.
Look at rookie Matt Swarmer (1-3), who allowed five runs (four earned) in four innings against Pittsburgh.
The first two outings of Swarmer’s major-league career this year were quality starts. He held the Brewers and Cardinals to one run through six innings. But his last three starts have been high-scoring.
First, the Yankees seemed to be anticipating each pitch as it came in, and Swarmer gave up six home runs. Then Swarmer lost his command against the Padres and walked five. And his start against the Pirates featured more hard contact and two walks.
“This time, I was trying to attack more in the zone because I wanted to go deep in the game,” Swarmer said. “I wanted to go six or seven [innings], but that one [long third] inning kind of hurt.”
The Cubs already have leaned heavily on their pitching depth in Triple-A, including the Swarmer and Kilian call-ups. And while the club is excited about the performances of prospects such as DJ Herz, who was named the 2021 Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year and has a 2.17 ERA in South Bend this season, he is still only in High-A ball.
By necessity, the Cubs’ starters will get more leeway. What other option do they have?
The way president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer sees it, in the long run, positives can still come out of rough outings.
“You want to make sure when you have talented young guys, you give them the runway to play and realize that with that comes some struggles,” Hoyer said last week. “You have to give them that time in order to allow them to fulfill their potential. At some point, you’re going to have to provide those plate appearances or those innings to learn how to play at this level.”
In the short run, the Cubs need an abrupt turnaround to salvage this four-game series.