Best record in NL? Not for long at Cubs’ post-All-Star pace
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A year ago, Cubs manager Joe Maddon rushed to the scene at home plate just in time to prevent what he said would have been an apocalyptic event.
In the sixth inning Tuesday, he did it again — but this time the manager’s own ejection only stalled baseball’s version of the end of times.
Maddon wasn’t there to intervene when Ben Zobrist took up his strike-zone case again at the end of the eighth. And after 1,562 major-league games, plus eight innings, the most polite super-utility man in baseball finally was ejected.
Could that be the difference in a nutshell between the Cubs’ 2017 season and this one?
Whether an apocalypse was set into motion by Zobrist’s historic clash with umpire Phil Cuzzi, a dispiriting 7-0 loss to the Brewers certainly underscored some troubling trends for the Cubs.
‘‘Listen, slice it, dice it — we’ve just got to do better,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘We’ve been shut out often lately and came maybe one pitch away from being shut out again [Sunday]. There’s nothing to defend there.’’
Since Maddon took over as manager before the 2015 season, the Cubs have been the best second-half team in the National League the last three years (149-73).
But the loss to the Brewers dropped them to only 13-12 since the All-Star break, a kiddie roller-coaster ride without more than two consecutive victories or two consecutive losses at any point.
They cling to the best record in a tightly packed NL despite a post-break stretch that features a 5.39 ERA by the starting staff after a pair of hanging curveballs by left-hander Jose Quintana were turned into two-run home runs by Ryan Braun in the first and third innings.
The Cubs are averaging four runs in those 25 games after averaging 5.1 before the break. In fact, they’ve been outscored 128-100 since the break and have been routed in five of those games.
Maddon has incurred two of his three ejections this season in the last four games. Ace left-hander Jon Lester has an 8.65 ERA in his last eight starts. And if not for a bases-loaded walk Friday and a final-pitch swing by a pinch hitter Sunday, the Cubs could be riding a five-game losing streak into their game Wednesday against the Brewers, with first place in the NL Central on the line.
What might have been doesn’t count, though. And David Bote’s winning grand slam Sunday was a swing for the ages. But this is the fine line the Cubs are walking with 44 games left and two teams — the Brewers and Cardinals — within four games of them in the division.
And the formula isn’t sustainable, especially with 17 of the next 24 games on the road after Wednesday, including 15 against winning teams.
‘‘I’m not overtly concerned,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘If you look at the reason we’ve been so pedestrian, up and down, we just haven’t hit like we can. Furthermore, giving up that many runs early makes it even more difficult on the offense.’’
It’s not going to get any easier, regardless of the schedule, if Lester doesn’t turn it around quickly. Maddon said the two talked since Lester’s last start about a change in approach and mixing of pitches that more resembles his strong first half and feel confident in his stuff and his strength.
They also have no idea when or if they’ll get closer Brandon Morrow back from the disabled list. The discomfort in his right biceps lingers, and he has yet to throw off a mound since his last appearance July 15.
The Cubs also have no timetable for the return of third baseman Kris Bryant, who’s on the disabled list for the second time because of a shoulder injury.
But nobody in the Cubs’ playoff-tested clubhouse seems worried.
Zobrist said the hitting slump led to a hitters-only meeting before the game.
‘‘We had a good discussion,’’ he said. ‘‘I think that we’re going to be fine, and we’ll just keep making adjustments.’’
‘‘We’re just not clicking on all cylinders,’’ leadoff hitter Anthony Rizzo said. ‘‘Just keep grinding.’’