After a 1-5 week, is it time to be worried about the second-place Cubs?
The Cubs finished up last week clinging to a 0.5-game lead in the NL Central division, badly needing a rebound after a 3-4 homestand where the bullpen imploded regularly.
That rebound didn’t come, as instead the Cubs struggled mightily on the road to a 1-5 mark. They lost two of three in Houston and saw the Cardinals turn the tables on them, sweeping the Northsiders out of St. Louis and into second place, a game back.
Is it time to panic? Well, no—it’s June, these are good teams, and the schedule has not been kind to the Cubs. But let’s take a look at the carnage.
It still feels a tiny bit weird seeing the Astros in the American League, as seeing the Cubs play in Minute Maid Park is a reminder of “oh yeah, these guys used to be in our division.”
These aren’t the Astros of old, though. Like the Cubs, they completed a seasons-long rebuild, tanking even harder than the Northsiders and netting such stars as José Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa… not of whom played in a series. The Cubs still looked outmatched, though, dropping the first two games and salvaging the finale.
In game one, the Cubs jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to a two-run jack by Anthony Rizzo off Gerrit Cole. But the Astros eventually got to starter Cole Hamels for five runs in the third, carrying a 6-3 lead into the ninth inning.
Albert Almora and Addison Russell homered off Houston closer Roberto Osuna, but they were both solo shots. The Cubs’ rally fell short for a 6-5 loss.
The second contest was a strange one. Down 1-0 early, the Cubs got the home-run bats out again, belting not one, not two, but three in the same inning for a 3-1 advantage. Jon Lester got hit hard for the third start in a row, though, giving up 7 ER in 5.2 IP in what was ultimately a 9-6 loss.
In the finale, it was the battle of the soft-tossing, guily guys, with Kyle Hendricks playing the role of “stopper” for the Cubs opposite Wade Miley. The Cubs managed just two runs—solo shots by Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant—but the Professor allowed just one to score in eight innings. Steve Cishek closed out the 2-1 victory, and the Cubs salvaged a win in a tough set.
When the Cubs came to St. Louis, the Cardinals were looking positively down-and-out. They had lost consecutive series against the Phillies, Pirates, Braves, Rangers, Braves (again), and Phillies (again), going 7-14 since the Cubs swept them at Wrigley and dropping below .500.
I thought the Cubs could right themselves by kicking the Redbirds while they were down. Instead, the Cardinals turned the tables and swept the Cubs out of boring St. Louis.
The series was frustrating overall, and game one turned out to be a microcosm of the whole thing. The Cubs got a great start from Yu Darvish (6 IP, 1 ER, 6 SO), but the offense did a whole lot of nothing against Miles Mikolas, scoring just once in the second inning.
They squandered plenty of opportunities along the way, and the Cardinals did their part by not scoring for eight consecutive innings after the first. But it was St. Louis who broke through in the tenth inning, walking off a 2-1 victory.
In game two, José Quintana pitched just four innings due to a rain delay that Cubs twitter had fun with. Q was sharp to that point, allowing only two runs, walking one batter, and striking out six. But the Cubs’ offense fell short when they needed to come through. Tyler Chatwood had a rare rough relief outing after the tarp came off, winding up with the loss in a 7-4 final.
The final game of the series saw both teams running on fumes. The previous contest lasted late into the night, with both teams having to play a day game in the finale. Cub and Cardinal hitters sleepwalked to and from the plate, Cole Hamels and Adam Wainwright combining to allow just one run in 15 innings.
Unfortunately, it was a St. Louis run, and an added insurance tally off Brad Brach helped the Cardinals preserve a 2-1 win and the sweep after the Cubs rallied in the final frame.
Next up: A glimmer of hope
The Cubs started this week off with a strong 8-1 drubbing of the Angels in a make-up game after their April 14 contest at Wrigley was snowed out.
The game featured just about everything you’d want as a Cubs fan: Lester getting back on his horse and tossing seven strong innings; Carlos González impressing in his Cubs debut; and a whole lot of runs off Angels starter Trevor Cahill, including Javy Báez and Willson Contreras going deep.
Hopefully the Cubs carry that momentum through the homestand, as the schedule doesn’t get much easier. First up, the red-hot Rockies visit for a three-game set. Hendricks gave the Cubs the edge in game one, and I see them grabbing one more for two of three.
Then it’s Cubs–Cardinals for the second weekend in a row. They’ve traded sweeps, but I think both teams are prepared to fight the series wire-to-wire at this point. Give the Cubs two of three thanks to a Wrigley Field advantage.
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the Cubs, but let’s not forget: The NL Central is probably the toughest division in baseball, as even the Reds and Pirates are threats. The Cardinals went 7-14 but are still only three games out of first, and the Cubs trail the Brewers by just a single game after going 4-9.
The division will be a dogfight to the end—but if the Cubs can get back to winning each series, taking two of three at a time, they’ll have as good a shot as any team.