ST. LOUIS — May has been a key month for the Cubs as they try to find their identity. No group was more in need of that identity check after the first month of the season than the rotation.
The starters’ struggles to find their rhythm forced the Cubs to lean heavily on the bullpen, and until May 4, a starter hadn’t gotten an out in the seventh inning.
The relief corps was highly successful, but having a bullpen carry that workload isn’t sustainable over 162 games, no matter how good the relievers are.
“The starting pitching has struggled early in the year — there’s no doubt about that,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “We haven’t pitched well enough in the rotation. We haven’t gotten deep enough in games. The bullpen has really sort of kept us afloat in that regard.”
But it seems that the rotation has gotten the message loud and clear recently. The starters have looked much more like the cohesive staff that Hoyer envisioned in spring training and have begun to take some of the pressure off the offense and the bullpen.
“They’re getting back to finding their rhythm, and that is important, for sure,” manager David Ross said.
The Cubs’ rotation has been led by Jake Arrieta, who carried the group through April and has allowed three earned runs or fewer in six of his eight starts.
After Arrieta, the next best Cubs starter has been young righty Adbert Alzolay, who continued his strong start in the Cubs’ 2-1 loss Saturday by tossing a career-high seven innings and allowing only two earned runs against the Cardinals.
Alzolay’s transition from prospect to major-league starter has been one of the best developments this season, and with each start, he has flashed what might be top-of-the-rotation stuff.
“I feel that now that we’re getting into that rhythm, it just brings more confidence to everyone in the rotation,” Alzolay said. “Just watching the game last night and watching Kyle [Hendricks] going about his business the way he was competing, you start getting fired up to go out and do the same thing.”
But the Cubs needed significant improvement from Hendricks and Zach Davies, who have been two of the most consistent pitchers in baseball the last five seasons. Both were horrendous in April with a combined 8.49 ERA in 41⅔ innings.
Hendricks has found his old form, and after throwing 6⅔ innings of one-run ball Friday, he has gone at least 6⅔ innings in three of his four starts in May. Davies also has looked like his old self with a 2.11 ERA
“I want to be that guy that my team can rely on,” Hendricks said. “They know what they’re going to get when I take the ball out there that day. . . . [Friday] was another step in the right direction.”
There’s little margin for error with the Cubs’ rotation because of some of the group’s similar characteristics, and last month showed how small that margin really is, especially when they aren’t pitching like expected.
Things could have gone off the rails for the veteran group, but it has gone from having two guys carry the load to the whole group pitching well together, and with the recent surge in offense, team success has followed.
“We have a lot of veteran starters outside of Adbert that understand how the season goes,” Ross said. ‘‘You’re going to have some good starts; you’re going to have some bad ones.
‘‘They didn’t get off to their best start, but I think they know they’re going to have better days. They trust in their track record. I trust in their track record that in each start they’ve got a chance to go as deep as they want.”