When it comes to the Cubs, the season is taking shape as a tale of two teams.
There’s the one that looks the part of a division leader — maybe even a World Series contender — when Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks or Jon Lester takes the ball. The first of that trio is in the driver’s seat for a Cy Young award. The second has firmly established himself as one of the game’s utmost tacticians. The third is a whisper shy of 200 career victories.
And then there’s the version of the Cubs that the Cardinals swept 4-2 and 5-1 on Saturday in a doubleheader at Wrigley Field. Relatively speaking, it was amateur night, with Cubs manager David Ross sending Adbert Alzolay and Colin Rea to the mound as his starting pitchers in Games 1 and 2, respectively. The Cardinals showed them no respect, sending each pitcher to the showers in the third inning.
The whole night put the deficiencies of a still-in-first-place team starkly on display.
Key again was their inability to capitalize on a potential big inning. In the opener against ageless Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright (4-0) — staked to a 1-0 lead after Ian Happ’s first-inning homer — the Cubs loaded the bases with no one out in the second. Stephen Souza Jr. then struck out meekly, Nico Hoerner lined out and Happ grounded out.
Over two seven-inning games, the Cubs were a wretched 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
“When you get hits in those situations, it’s great,” Ross said. “We’ve got to move the baseball in that situation, make something happen.”
In the third inning of the opener, Alzolay (0-1) was unable to survive some bumps. After a pair of singles to open the frame, Alzolay, making only his fourth career start, fought back, striking out Paul Goldschmidt and getting Paul DeJong to beat a ball into the ground. It would’ve been a 5-4-3 double play, but first baseman Anthony Rizzo was unable to squeeze Hoerner’s slightly high relay throw. Still in trouble, Alzolay walked Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter before getting the hook.
“The youth showed back up a little bit,” Ross said. “He just got a little rushed. I think he was trying to do a little too much at times and got a little out of sync with his rhythm, that’s all. The stuff’s there.”
The stuff was impressive early. But Alzolay — already 25 and in his eighth year in the organization — has reached a time in his career when he has to push his chips into the pot if he’s going to truly help the Cubs.
Tyler Chatwood, on the injured list with a forearm strain, might not be back this season. Jose Quintana, an injured left lat shelving him on the heels of the dishwashing accident heard ’round the world, might not be in any shape to start games again this season.
Chatwood and Quintana — who could resume his throwing program Sunday — have been around the block. Not so for Rea, 30, who has had only one close-to-full season in the majors, with the Padres in 2016. And not so for Alzolay, no matter how long the Cubs have been signing his paychecks.
Eight pitchers have started games for the Cubs this season. That includes Alec Mills, of course, who has been decent as a part of the rotation all the way through — but only because Quintana sliced into a nerve in his left thumb.
Mills, Alzolay, Rea, Tyson Miller — who are these guys, anyway?
“I was able to make my pitches early in the game, so that’s a big takeaway for me,” Alzolay said. “Especially facing this lineup, you know? They have good hitters and all that. I’m good with it because I know that when I needed to make my pitches, I did it.”
That’s sure not something a grizzled vet would say after a short night.