Cubs seek one-run wins, ‘rhythm,’ sunbeams and space heaters in early going
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When the Cubs talked all spring about the fast start they expected, the unspoken part of the optimism was the appearance of a soft schedule, with only one of their first five series against a team expected to be a threat for the playoffs.
The part they mentioned a lot was the rebuilt starting rotation that manager Joe Maddon estimated was the best he has had since arriving in Chicago in 2015.
So much for the best-laid plans of mice and World Series hopefuls.
The only semblance of heat on a cold, windy, bitter Tuesday night at Wrigley Field was provided by the Cardinals, who beat the Cubs 5-3 in the opener of a series already shortened to two games by snowy weather Monday.
In the first meeting between the division rivals, the Cardinals won their fifth straight and dropped the Cubs to 7-8 — with enough ugly weather in the forecast for Wednesday that Thursday was looking more likely as a rescheduled game day.
“You know those sunny days are coming,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said, “both on the field and as a group.”
Rizzo might have provided the lone bright spot for the Cubs, returning from the disabled list after missing eight games and proclaiming his once-achy back well.
“The back felt great,” he said.
That makes one part of the team, which has seen its bats enter a deep freeze as often as the game-time temperature (35 degrees with wind chills in the 20s Tuesday).
Meanwhile, the revamped rotation is still waiting to go on a run. Its combined ERA is 5.31 after three full turns.
And that’s an improvement even after Tyler Chatwood failed to get out of the fifth inning, in large part because of seven walks that contributed to 97 pitches. He also struck out seven.
“He had really good stuff,” Maddon said, suggesting the conditions made it tough to grip the ball but making no excuses for Chatwood’s 14 walks in 15⅔ innings.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best baseball by any stretch,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That’s for sure. It has been a little bit of a choppy schedule. That’s made it hard to get on much of a rhythm. But I think we had some games early we let get away a little bit.
“It’s definitely not the fast start we were hoping for.”
The Cubs’ pitching staff ranks among the league leaders with 4.9 walks a game.
“When it comes to the pitching part of it, I think that’s really where it’s been difficult to get in a rhythm,” Hoyer said, citing cold temperatures and multiple days off in a row created by postponements. “You’ve seen pitchers with really good control and command struggle to throw strikes. A lot of that I think is the conditions we’ve been playing in.
“When it comes to walk rates, that’s something we have to wait on until we’re playing in better conditions. That said, I think the situational hitting is still something that’s a work in progress and something we have to get better at.”
The issues are remarkably similar to the problems that afflicted the Cubs during their sluggish first half last year.
“One of the hard parts about early-season baseball is that if you’re .500, if one of two of those games go the other way, then all of a sudden we’re talking about a pretty good start,” Hoyer said.
“I feel like one game or two games this early in the season really changes the way everyone looks at the way things are.”