Cubs moving on from strange first month

CHICAGO -- April was arguably as strange a month as the Chicago Cubs will have. Their first 25 games were decided by four runs or less, making it the second-longest such streak to start a season in baseball history. They almost made it a full month of close games if not for Edwin Jackson's performance in a 13-7 loss on Tuesday night. He had the rare bad start in a month of good ones by Cubs hurlers.

The outcome on Tuesday was much more predictable than the first 25 where games were won and lost in the strangest of fashions. Errors, home runs, bullpen meltdowns and wild pitches were the norm. And a look inside the numbers truly tells how weird the first month of the season was for the 10-16 Cubs.

They hit 35 home runs in the first month, or 26 more than they did last April. Combined with lowering their ERA from 4.21 to 3.78 those numbers should equate to more than just a slight increase in their winning percentage from .348 to .385. But it didn't. Why not?

"The biggest thing right now why we're 10-15 and not 15-10 is just timely hitting," manager Dale Sveum said before Tuesday's loss. "Twenty-five games in a row decided by four runs or less. You hit .250 instead of .150 that's a lot of runs in 25 games."

Ah, timely hitting. It's been pretty bad. The Cubs are dead last in baseball with a .165 batting average with men in scoring position. But here's the strange part of that statistic: They lead the National League with the most home runs with at least one man on base (16). Yet they're second to last in runs scored in the NL. Strange indeed.

More than hitting with runners in scoring position maybe the Cubs just need more runners. They're near the bottom in overall batting average (.235) and rank 28th in baseball in on-base percentage (.288).

There's another oddity. Home run hitting teams usually take a lot of walks. For example, the Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies rank ahead of the Cubs in long balls and are also in the top 5 of the NL in taking free passes. But the Cubs are dead last with just 58 walks. It makes little sense.

Also making little sense is the Cubs' defense through the first month. It's gotten better but they rank second to last in the NL with a .979 fielding percentage. Their fourteen unearned runs given up are a testament to the poor timing of those errors.

"It's the big leagues if you give extra outs away it's tough to overcome that," Anthony Rizzo said Tuesday. "And we did that a lot this first month."

Rizzo was a culprit as was shortstop Starlin Castro on some brutal plays. Heck, pitcher Scott Feldman alone has three.

Finally, nothing has been stranger than how well the Cubs starters have pitched despite Jackson's meltdown on Tuesday. This was a big question mark heading into the season. Starters finished the month with a 3.57 ERA, fourth best in the NL. None of the teams in front of the Cubs in that category are under .500. It's the most important part of baseball and they've been great yet their record to show for it is 5-13 while the Cubs are 10-16 overall.

"We know what our starting pitchers can be every night," Sveum said. "If we can go through the next stretch of 25 games for our starting pitching to be as good as they have the first 25 games then you know you're going to be in games.

"If our offense heats up and gets some more timely hitting you'll start busting some games open. And obviously we lost a few of them too because of poor defense. Those are things we've obviously tightened up."

But can the starting pitching keep it up? Because Sveum is right, the defense has gotten better and even the bullpen has improved after a rough start, especially with the addition of Kevin Gregg.

"Have to keep our head down," Rizzo said. "Can't look up and think we're getting close. Just keep our head down and keep pushing. And keep playing those consistent games. We'll start to prevail."

Added Jeff Samardzija: "Let's be honest. We played some really good teams there in the month of April and we knew that looking at the schedule.

"We were right there in a lot of games. This could easily be flipped around and be 15-10 instead of 10-15 but you don't win or lose the season in April. I feel like we're good where we are."

But getting there was very strange.