After fairy-tale season, Cubs are stuck in a stinker of a sequel

CHICAGO -- If this were 2016, the script would go something like this:

The Chicago Cubs are fighting and struggling to hang in a tight playoff race. Scuffling slugger Kyle Schwarber returns from a temporary demotion to Triple-A, emerging like Ray Liotta from the Iowa cornfields in "Field of Dreams." He hits two homers, the Cubs carry him off the field, and Chicago goes on a tear to seize control of the NL Central.

It was kind of like that last season for the Cubs, even for Schwarber, who missed all but one regular-season game only to return and mash during an improbable World Series return, whisked to the Fall Classic the day before Game 1 from the Arizona Fall League. Whatever happened, you had the feeling it was going to turn out well.

But this is not 2016. And if last season felt like a fairy tale for the Cubs, this season feels like the poorly executed sequel.

Thursday's game was a letdown for the 41,576 fans at a jam-packed Wrigley Field. The Milwaukee Brewers raced out to a big lead and cruised to an 11-2 victory, pushing their lead over Chicago in the National League Central to a season-high 4 1/2 games. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it's the Cubs' biggest deficit in the division since the second-to-last day of the 2015 season.

"Honestly, there is not a whole lot to talk about," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "That game goes in the trash can as quickly any game we've ever played. We just didn't pitch well early, and it's very difficult to fight back from that moment."

The day began with rosier news. Schwarber was recalled from Iowa before Thursday's game, a one-off makeup encounter with a highly annoyed bunch of Brewers. Back on May 20, when the Brewers were hot and the Cubs were not, an afternoon game was called before it started because of an impending rainstorm that never happened. Milwaukee, which beat Baltimore at home on Wednesday night, didn't particularly want to be in Chicago on Thursday. But the Brewers looked like a team intent on taking their annoyance out on their high-profile southern neighbors.

Milwaukee needed just two batters to grab a lead it never relinquished. Jonathan Villar walked and scored on Domingo Santana's double off Cubs lefty Mike Montgomery. Santana later scored. Then the Brewers broke the game open with a seven-run third that included five walks. The Cubs hadn't walked that many batters in an inning since 2014. The Brewers hadn't drawn that many walks in an inning since 2006.

"It was a tough one," Montgomery said. "Just wasn't able to get the outs. It was one of those games you've just got to erase from your memory. Move on to the next one."

By the time Montgomery exited in the third, it was apparent that there was to be no immediate jolt from Schwarber's return. Schwarber didn't do much, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. He hit a ball deep into the right-field corner that curled foul. His two groundouts were well struck but both were sucked up by the kind of well-designed shifts he likely didn't see at Des Moines. Schwarber also committed an error in left field when he dropped the ball while transferring from the glove to his throwing hand, allowing a runner to advance.

"A lot of the same stuff," Maddon said. "Fouled off some pitches, hit that one ball good foul. Really, it's too early to tell anything.

"[There were] some borderline calls that went against him, looked like some elevated fastballs, some things down and away against him. Let's just take it one game at a time."

Even if Schwarber had returned with a blast or two, it wouldn't have mattered because of the same problems that have plagued Chicago all season, problems that have nothing to do with their left fielder. The Cubs have now trailed after the first inning an MLB-high 30 times, and they have gone 13-17 in those games. They have allowed 70 first-inning runs this season after allowing 71 such tallies all of 2016.

"It's frustrating," Montgomery said. "Every time you go out there, you want to give your team a chance to win. Wasn't able to do that today.

"You take it for what it is, learn from it, and move on."

After the game, the news got moderately worse when it was announced that reigning MVP Kris Bryant finished second in the NL's Final Five voting for Tuesday's All-Star Game in Miami. That means the defending champs will send only closer Wade Davis to the game from their playing roster, and he wasn't around last season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cubs are the first defending champion that hasn't sent one of its All-Stars from the previous season back to the Midsummer Classic the following season.

But those are trifling concerns for a Cubs team that remains upbeat about itself. Before the game, a feisty-sounding Theo Epstein basically paraphrased former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who always liked to say that his team has "more than enough to win with."

Epstein, the team president, said that a splashy trade isn't what will get the Cubs back on track. It will be the core of the team that won 200 regular-season games over 2015 and 2016.

"Baseball is a game of ups and downs," center fielder Jon Jay said. "You never know what it's going to throw at you. You have to stay positive.

"That's the best thing about this team. The guys are upbeat. You just have to keep playing."

Things got so out of hand on Thursday that Jay made his first big league appearance on the mound, mixing in what Maddon called "a changeup to a changeup" and holding the Brewers scoreless in the ninth. It was a bit of sunshine for the hearty Cubs fans who stuck around till the end to watch a guy throw 58 mph fastballs.

"I'm not worried about the radar readings," Jay said. "I probably broke a record for slowest pitches out there."

Still, Epstein is right. Any headline trade he might swing would be made moot if his existing roster doesn't start performing up to its expected performance, expectations not based on hope and empty platitudes, but actual, measurable track records of production.

Yet, as the first half winds down, and the Brewers appear to be achieving at least a modicum of separation, the Cubs continue to flirt with the specter of a lost season. What if a key player gets hurt? Or two of them? The kind of buffer the Cubs built with their sterling showing early in 2016 simply isn't there. Sure, it feels like every day is going to be the start of a Cubs hot streak, but the fact is Chicago hasn't won two in a row since June 20.

"We kind of understand where we're at," Montgomery said. "Today was a big game. Unfortunately, I put up that performance against the Brewers when we're trying to chase them in the division. You've got to do two things: You've got to stay within yourself, and you've got to stay within your routines.

"You have to give them credit. They are a good team. They really swing the bats well. They were hot coming in and they are in first place for a reason."

Thus is the tenuous reality of a team trying to become the first National League repeat champion since the 1970s. As you can see, defending a championship is no fairy tale.