Cubs ace Marcus Stroman has rare rough outing in loss to Cardinals

Stroman allowed five runs and couldn’t get out of the fourth inning.

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Marcus Stroman

Chicago Cubs’ Marcus Stroman kisses the ball before pitching during the fourth inning of the team’s baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday, July 20, 2023, in Chicago.

Charles Rex Arbogas/AP

If there has been a wart in All-Star Marcus Stroman’s contract-year drive this season, it’s a walk rate that has crept up to a career-high 9.2% after four against the Cardinals on Thursday in the Cubs’ 7-2 loss.

On the bright side, the impact is usually minimized by his consistent ability to generate soft contact on the ground.

If there was a wart to focus on in the Cubs’ play behind their ace in the opener of a four-game series with their archrivals, it would be the two errors — and another misplay — at third base from Patrick Wisdom, leading to an unearned run in the first inning.

“We never gave [Stroman] a real chance to get in a rhythm,” manager David Ross said. “There’s a lot of pretty standard major-league plays that should have been made behind him.”

Both errors conspired to spike Stroman’s pitch count early, driving the Cubs’ innings leader to the showers an out short of completing four innings at 99 pitches. But not before Jordan Walker’s two-run home run on a hanging slurve and Nolan Arenado’s two-run double to the wall broke things open in a four-run Cardinals fourth.

“I was just slightly off mechanically, missing the zone, getting behind in counts,” Stroman said. “[The Cardinals] have a bunch of guys who put a priority on battling, taking counts deep, really doing a good job of just swinging at strikes. I feel like they didn’t expand at all in the zone, so my pitch count got really high.”

Paul DeJong’s two-run, opposite-field blast off reliever Michael Rucker in the fifth inning only reiterated the tone of the evening.

The Cubs might not have publicly declared a direction for the looming Aug. 1 trade deadline, but their counterparts for the weekend are avowed sellers. And the Cardinals are only 1½ games behind the Cubs in the National League Central.

There’s a consistently good-to-great track record over Stroman’s nine-year major-league career and a 57.8% ground-ball rate, second-best in the majors, to testify to the continued effectiveness of his sinker. Together with a 3.09 ERA, there are plenty of reasons why he would be a highly coveted trade target if the Cubs were to move him at the deadline.

Stroman has a 6.56 ERA in his last five starts, walking 12 hitters in 23‰ innings. He has earned the win in only one of those outings on the heels of a streak of winning seven straight starts that ended last month. His ERA is back over 3.00 for the first time in two months.

“Sometimes things just work out that way,’’ Stroman said. ‘‘It’s one of those where I wash it, make a few mechanical adjustments and go back out there in five, six days.”

His monstrous first half combined with a breakout season from Justin Steele made the Cubs’ rotation and playoff hopes look legitimate through the season’s first three months. But this speed bump has been one of the reasons for the Cubs’ 7-9 record in July.

The Cubs needed a big surge this month to justify buying at the deadline and chasing a division title. Nico Hoerner’s cathartic eighth-inning grand slam Wednesday night felt like it could be the start of something like that for an up-and-down Cubs offense.

Thursday night reminded everyone that in baseball, momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.

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