PITTSBURGH -- It's a good thing the Chicago Cubs don't ride the emotional roller coaster that comes with a 162-game season. If they did, they'd be dizzy by now, as the past week alone has brought a myriad of ups and downs.
It was just last Sunday night, on national television, when rookie David Bote hit the first-ever walk-off grand slam with his team trailing 3-0 while facing two outs and two strikes. Fast forward to this Sunday, and the Cubs were making more history -- but not the good kind. Chicago became the first team to score four runs in a four-games series -- one in each game -- all by solo home runs. Winning two of the four against the Pittsburgh Pirates was quite an accomplishment.
"We scored four runs, one a game, and somehow came away with two wins," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said after the finale, a 2-1 defeat in 11 innings. "Instead of hanging our heads because our offense is brutal right now, we take the positives out of it."
To add to their Sunday woes, about the time that Kyle Schwarber was providing the only offense of the day by hitting his second home run of the series, righty Yu Darvish was coming out of his rehab start at Class A South Bend, Indiana, earlier than expected.
"It's bad news," Sunday's starter Jose Quintana said. "I saw him the last two weeks really excited and happy. He said his rehab was better."
Darvish essentially is done for the season, though the Cubs haven't declared him out just yet. Not before he takes an MRI on Monday at least. But he's actually less of a concern to the Cubs than their offense. After all, they've been playing without Darvish for months while their offense is the primary reason they took over first place. However, if their second-half doldrums at the plate continue, how long can they expect to stay atop the NL Central?
"We have to get our offense straightened out," manager Joe Maddon said. "I can't make any excuses. There are none. We just have to get better."
If a quick fix was to be had, they would have tried it by now as Maddon indicated he's in constant communication with hitting coach Chili Davis and his players. Even the hitters who were carrying the team for a while -- like the hero from last Sunday -- are struggling. So is Javier Baez. And Addison Russell. And Willson Contreras. The latter two players have been in prolonged slumps with Russell attempting to play through a nagging finger injury.
"Once I step up to the plate, that adrenaline kind of kicks in a little bit so it's not as bad," Russell said. "It's something I can manage."
But can he be productive while playing through it? On Sunday, he came off the bench late in the game and doubled, only to get picked off third base later in the inning. It was one of the few extra-base hits he has had in the second half, but then again few Cubs have had many. They rank 13th in slugging since the All-Star break.
"We're grinding," Rizzo said. "We're doing our best to string stuff together. It's just not cooperating right now."
"It was a different series, that's for sure," Schwarber added. "The pitching was on -- all four games. You tip your hat to their side."
Schwarber also tipped his hat to his own pitchers, considering the Pirates scored only five runs in the series themselves. According to the Elias Sports Bureau research, the nine combined runs by the two teams is the lowest total in a four-game series since 1958.
So there is some good news. Despite the Darvish setback, the other Cubs starters are beginning to find their groove. And team defense is as good as ever, as evidenced by an MLB record-tying seven double plays turned (for a nine-inning game) in Friday's 1-0 win over the Pirates, the Cubs' second 1-0 victory in a row.
"When you're not hitting, sometimes your defense will go away, but it has not," Maddon said, trying to find a positive.
Eventually, the conversation with Maddon turned back to his struggling offense, as he spoke in the visitors office at PNC Park after their latest defeat. Earlier in the year, he saw a group of hitters using the whole field while taking their walks and handing the baton to the next guy. The Cubs were at the top of the league in opposite-field hits. That has dried up, confounding the manager as much as anyone watching his hitters.
Even before the series, the Cubs haven't been swinging the bats well, Maddon acknowledged: "I really would have thought by this time of the year we would have kicked it pretty good. Young hitters that I thought were getting better. I thought we were, then we slid backward a little bit."
No one was immune in Pittsburgh, leading to some frustrating moments. Right now, Contreras might be the most confused at the plate. He struck out three more times on Sunday, lowering his OPS since the All-Star break to .652. He didn't want to talk about his struggles after the Cubs' 3-1 loss on Saturday. But there were plenty of struggling hitters who were willing to discuss the problems, though with no answers forthcoming.
"Just not hitting," Rizzo said. "It's as simple as that. There is nothing more to it."
And don't look to Maddon to change a lot. He'll keep attempting to find the right matchups while stressing less is more at this time of year.
"It's not going to require more batting practice," he said. "It doesn't require more video. It requires a plan at the plate, trusting yourself, using the whole field. That kind of thing."
Schwarber added: "You can't be panicked by the fact we played four games where we scored one run. Good thing we have the off day to reset."
Rizzo echoed the notion about having a day off in the Detroit area on Monday before taking on the Tigers for two games beginning on Tuesday. It starts a string of 23 games in 23 days -- so fatigued bats won't get another break for a while.
"We have to be able to take it a game at a time down the stretch," Schwarber said.
Right now, the Cubs are taking it one run at a time -- per game. That needs to change. And fast.