MIAMI -- Let’s face it. The Chicago Cubs were living a charmed life for the first six weeks of the season. Other than Kyle Schwarber's injury, everything that could go right did. Now, the opposite is happening, as just about every facet of the Cubs' game has seemingly fallen apart.
Team president Theo Epstein forecast this when he said back in May that there would be days when it would be difficult to win a baseball game -- even as his team was making it look so easy. A 4-8 stretch that month felt nothing like the one the Cubs are in now. This one is worse, as it is decidedly difficult for the Cubs to do anything right at the moment -- including winning.
“We have to firm things up,” manager Joe Maddon said after the latest loss, 6-1 to the Miami Marlins on Sunday. “We’re making some mistakes on defense, which have to go away. That’s stuff we normally don’t do. Beyond that, we have to tighten up our bullpen also, where you can know what to expect when a guy comes out of a bullpen. The hitting has wavered a little bit also.
“A lot of bumps and bruises. It’s like a fight. You got cut a little bit, and you have to keep going. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Maddon pretty much reeled off everything important to the game of baseball, except starting pitching. That has “wavered” as well, as Jason Hammel was locked in a tight battle with Jose Fernandez until the Cubs cracked. Hammel was in and out of trouble all day and seemingly got out of another jam in a 1-1 game in the sixth. But Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist couldn’t connect on a double-play attempt that allowed the winning run to cross the plate. Later, Bryant made a throwing error, which means that in the past two days, every position in the infield has made a miscue, and just about every miscue has led to runs. You can’t blame that on injuries.
“No excuse,” Anthony Rizzo said. “Whoever is on this field is expected to win. We have to tighten it up on defense, and that’s it.”
The bullpen is a whole other issue right now. Maddon’s rotation is a mess. He is using guys out of their roles because there are only a few arms that he trusts. Sitting in his office after the loss, he must have mentioned getting the bullpen fixed three different times. On Sunday, a 3-1 deficit turned into a 6-1 blowout when the Marlins added runs off Justin Grimm, Spencer Patton and Gerardo Concepcion. It’s a disturbing pattern.
“We need to get it straightened out in order to keep a smaller deficit, which gives us a better mental chance at the end of the game,” Maddon said.
Taking a look at the bigger picture, we know the Cubs will come out of this funk sooner or later and, hopefully, for their sake, with a big lead in the division intact. But one trend that emerged even during all the good times of the first 10 weeks was their inability to win a tight, low-scoring game. After Sunday, the Cubs are 4-22 in games in which they score three runs or fewer. For comparison, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the other two NL division leaders -- San Francisco and Washington -- are 14-19 and 8-25, respectively, when scoring three or fewer. The Giants' win percentage is tops in baseball in that category.
“I’ve always said you win championships by winning 1-0, 2-1, 3-2,” Maddon said. “That was my rallying cry in instructional leagues. We will. We’ll come back from this little bump. Get everyone well. But in the meantime, we still have to be able to take care of business.”
A critic would point to the one area of the Cubs' game that could be vulnerable come October. Playoff baseball is usually about winning those low-scoring contests.
“What we did last year was win a lot of the one-run games and the lower-scoring games,” Bryant said. “This year seems the complete opposite. We’re either winning by a lot or kind of losing the closer games.”
Although the Cubs are 10-11 in one-run games, that’s not the big issue, as Hector Rondon has been solid, and the Cubs haven’t blown a lot of late-inning leads. It’s the low-scoring games that might be cause for concern, and that's when the starting pitching has to come up big. It has most of the season, but it did not on Saturday or Sunday in Miami.
“They [the Marlins] played a great series,” Hammel said. “These things happen a few times a year, where you think you’re doing things right and you can’t get it done. ... I don’t think we’re panicking or anything like that.”
It’s going to take a lot more than losing six out of seven -- the Cubs' worst stretch since September 2014 -- for a Joe Maddon team to panic. But at least one or two parts of the Cubs’ game needs to find itself, or the final seven games of this road trip could feel like an eternity.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good position to go through these stretches,” Rizzo said. “I’m not saying it's OK. I’m not saying it's fun, but it’s part of the season, and that’s just the way this game is.”