MILWAUKEE -- One picture tells the story: MVP runner-up Javier Baez putting his arm around maligned reliever Carl Edwards Jr. as he walks off the mound after serving up a home run to Orlando Arcia in the Milwaukee Brewers' 13-10 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Friday night. It was the Cubs' sixth consecutive defeat after winning their season opener March 28. That was more than a week ago.
It feels like a month.
"What we're going through right now would have happened at some point during the season," manager Joe Maddon said. "When it happens during the year, then it's disguised more readily by your record. When you don't have a record, it stands out like a neon, flashing sign."
What stands out more than anything are the numbers associated with the Cubs' pitching staff. Of course, it's early, and of course, it can turn around, but it's as ugly as it gets right now. After Friday's loss, the Cubs rank last in the majors in ERA (7.85). They are 29th in starters' ERA and 29th in relievers' ERA. The aforementioned Edwards has a 32.40 mark after serving up that long ball to Arcia. The bullpen also ranks first in issuing walks. It's a mess.
"From a reliever's standpoint, you're in there for an inning. If you get three outs, you're on top of the world -- but if you do one thing wrong ... it's the highs and lows of being a relief pitcher, so much more than being a starter or even a position player," third baseman Kris Bryant said after Friday's game. "I feel for those guys."
The walks have been bad, but over the past few days, pitchers have talked about simplifying the approach and just throwing strikes. They were committed to it Friday.
"We have to make them beat us, not beat ourselves," right-handed starter Kyle Hendricks said before the game. "We can only focus on what we can control, and that's throwing strikes."
It's almost as if the Brewers were listening, because Cubs starter Jose Quintana did serve up plenty of strikes. The Brewers didn't walk to first but did some light jogging instead, hitting three home runs against Quintana and then two more against Cubs relievers.
"They ambushed me tonight," Quintana said afterward. "They jumped me right away. I feel really bad. I tried to pick up my teammates."
He's not the first pitcher to say he feels bad during this shockingly poor first week of games for the Cubs. Seemingly, no one this side of Jon Lester has been immune to it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 57 runs given up in the team's first seven games are the most for the franchise since 1901. It has even prompted the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate to chime in on Twitter.
Please stop asking us if Ian Happ can pitch.— Iowa Cubs (@IowaCubs) April 5, 2019
So why has it gone wrong on the mound?
No fewer than three relievers were slowed by ailments in spring training, and all showed their rustiness to start the season. Mike Montgomery (shoulder), Brad Brach (illness) and Pedro Strop (hamstring) have had their moments so far, but none are drawing the ire of fans more than Edwards. On Friday, the Cubs had cut an eight-run deficit to only three when Maddon summoned Edwards into the game with a man on base in the fifth inning. Six pitches later, Arcia swung the momentum back to the Brewers.
"We have to pitch," an earnest Maddon said. "You have to pitch and catch the ball to win it."
Maddon mentioned catching. Besides having the worst ERA in baseball, the Cubs also have the second-worst fielding percentage after committing their 10th and 11th errors of the season Friday, including their second catcher's interference call in as many nights.
Nothing is going right. Even their offense is showing up too late in games, as the Cubs didn't tally a run until after they were down 9-0 on Thursday, then fell behind 8-0 before scoring Friday. Everyone knows it's early, but with Milwaukee's 7-1 start combined with the Cubs' 1-6 mark, a sense of urgency has emerged.
"We know that these games count," veteran Ben Zobrist said. "That's why people care right now. That's why people are talking right now, because we know they matter. And it's going to matter at the end of the year. So we need to take it seriously, which we are. There's a lot of care and concern going into this. It's just where do you put that?"
For the Cubs' sake, hopefully they "put" whatever they can into their pitching strategy and find some better results. That could mean a call-up or two from Triple-A -- Maddon wouldn't say either way Friday -- or simply relying on their high-priced starters for more consistency. Of course, that didn't work against the defending NL Central Division champs, who are off to a red-hot start. It prompted Maddon to quote Winston Churchill.
"When you're going through hell, just keep on going," he said.