CHICAGO -- As the Chicago Cubs enter the last month of the season the only positive thing left for them to do is finish strong. A 7-19 record in August heading into the month’s final game on Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies ruined any hopes of a .500-or-better finish. They had climbed to within seven games of the break-even mark in late July only to fall way back again.
So is finishing strong important, or is the finish to the season forgotten once it’s over?
“I think it’s very important,” manager Dale Sveum said Saturday morning. “The last month is priceless for some guys, especially guys that have had a tough struggle and for other guys being evaluated for next year.”
Was Sveum talking directly to shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo? Or perhaps it was directed towards Saturday’s starter, Chris Rusin. There are enough Cubs still finding their way in the major leagues that Sveum probably didn’t have anyone in particular in mind.
“Finishing strong in general will make you feel better in the offseason. Sometimes it carries over to the next season,” reliever James Russell said. “If all the guys are finishing strong we’re going to be winning some games too.”
So who needs the big finish? Whether it be for their own self-confidence or to leave a lasting good impression, here are three candidates:
Starlin Castro: It’s no surprise Castro tops the list. He’s had one decent month this season, in July, when he hit .292 with an on-base percentage of .339. But that was followed up by a .210 month in August. Overall, he’s hitting .241 with 111 strikeouts. And his power has been nearly non-existent for five months as he enters the final day of August with just seven home runs in 584 plate appearances. A strong finish may not matter as he left 2012 on a high note with hitting splits of .311/.368/.475 and it led to this abysmal year. Yet anything that chips away at his confidence can’t be a good thing, so any positive in the final 30 days or so should be cherished.
Junior Lake: He may have proven enough to maintain his starting job for 2014, but considering his few at-bats this year, his numbers could look very average if he slumps in September. Sveum said Saturday Lake is still in the early stages of learning so maybe he’ll get a pass if he finishes slow. But with prospects starting to find their way to the big leagues, any slippage by an incumbent could be fatal. Lake wasn’t thought of as a major prospect when he was called up but he’s proven he deserves a long look for the future. September can help point him that direction and potentially prove he’s not a flash in the pan.
Chris Rusin: The Cubs traded 2/5 of their starting staff by August so it gave others a two-month tryout. Rusin has passed the test so far, sporting a sparkling 2.64 ERA in eight starts. The Cubs have some options for the back end of their starting staff next season, but right now there are openings to be filled. Rusin could be one of them as he’s taken his dreadful experience in his debut in 2012 (6.37 ERA) and put it to good use. He’s only had one real blemish so far, and that was against the hottest team in the league, the Los Angeles Dodgers. And he gutted out some decent performances when he didn’t have his best stuff. In terms of jobs for next season, Rusin’s September might be the most important.
You could make a case for others, including Darwin Barney, Kevin Gregg, Donnie Murphy and Rizzo, but in many of those situations the Cubs know what they have in those players no matter how they finish.
“The adage of ‘it’s not how you start it’s how you finish,’ helps the winter a lot,” Sveum said. “You don’t want to have bad Septembers and sit on that in the winter.”