The time has come to take the persistent narrative about the Cubs being world-beaters at home and pushovers on the road and drop it into the trash.
It belongs there with the stinking beer cups, the mustard-stained hot-dog wrappers and all the other refuse of games gone by.
After a 7-5 loss in 11 innings Sunday to the Nationals at Wrigley Field, the Cubs — swept at home for the first time all season — are what they are: a team that’s struggling to find the fast lane offensively and a postseason contender that’s going to have to do a whole lot of heavy lifting just to make its way into the dance.
No longer is the story about where these Cubs are playing. Rather, it’s strictly about whom they’re playing.
For three games against the Nationals, they faced an opponent that is clicking in every facet of the game. No, these weren’t the last two lesser foes, against whom the Cubs ended their road misery (Pirates) and began a homestand with a three-game sweep (Giants). These were the Nats — the best team in baseball for the last three months.
Don’t believe it? Anyone who watched the Nats outscore the Cubs 23-10 over the weekend should. Since a loss on May 23, manager Dave Martinez’s team is a lights-out 54-26, a .675 winning percentage that has presented the National League playoff picture in a different light.
The Dodgers are mighty from top to bottom. The Braves are exciting and fearless. But another — Bryce Harper-less — contender is throwing haymakers at everybody.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s a poor analogy. The Nats are putting more balls in play than all the teams they’re beating. Their disciplined approach at the plate made the free-swinging Cubs — who had only seven hits Sunday, to the Nats’ 14 — look almost out of their league.
“They just don’t chase,” manager Joe Maddon said, admiringly.
“That’s what we need to be able to accomplish — that ‘we’re going to force people into the strike zone’ — and when you do, that’s what happens.”
But the Cubs are running out of time to change their stripes. Next comes a three-game series at the Mets, starting Tuesday. The Mets — despite being swept at home themselves over the weekend by the NL East-leading Braves — still have won 21 of their last 29 games. They’ve still won 13 of 17 at Citi Field, where they have an MLB-high 20 games left to play.
The Cubs are 2½ games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and four games back of the Nats for the first wild card. The Phillies, Mets and Brewers are within two games of the Cubs for the second wild-card spot.
A day off Monday might have taken on a different tone had Nick Castellanos’ deep fly to center field in the 10th off Daniel Hudson dropped into the basket. Castellanos thought it was gone, and 40,000-plus in the ballpark concurred. The wind kept it in by inches.
Tyler Chatwood gave up two runs in the 11th and took the loss.
“To take a woe-is-me attitude would do nobody any justice,” Castellanos said. “So we’ve got to wash it [away] and get ready to play good baseball.”
The Cubs are about to face three Mets starters — Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom — who can make life hard on anybody, anytime, anywhere.
Anthony Rizzo, who missed the game with a sore back, could rejoin the lineup Tuesday. The Cubs also put reliever Derek Holland on the 10-day injured list with a bruised wrist and recalled David Bote, who pinch-hit in the 11th and lined out.
Will Ben Zobrist finally reappear with the Cubs in New York, too? He was home in Nashville, Tennessee, over the weekend awaiting his next assignment.
Kyle Hendricks, who will oppose Syndergaard on Wednesday, insists all is under control.
“This group has been through it before,” he said. “We’re right where we want to be.”