CINCINNATI -- On the road again. I just can't wait to get on the road again.
It was good enough for Willie Nelson, but it might not be for the Chicago Cubs as they take their act on the road, where the results have been decidedly different than at home this season. It's a pattern that has repeated itself over and over again, frustrating and confounding their manager.
"To be two different teams, completely, is very awkward," Joe Maddon said recently. "I don't have any solid answers. The process has been the same. The work has been the same. Their attitude has been good."
The Cubs' attitude might be good, but the results have not been. In fact, they've been downright awful away from home. Going into the four-game series with the Cincinnati Reds that begins Thursday, Chicago hasn't won a road series since May 17-19 and is the only team in baseball that owns such a dubious streak during that time. That's a span of 10 road series in which the Cubs have either split or lost. It has led to a 21-33 road mark -- compared to their stellar 41-19 record at home. Wrigley Field is the reason the Cubs are in first place. The road could be the reason they drop out of it.
The Cubs, who finished 5-1 on their just completed homestand, wouldn't be the first or second or even third team to win a division despite having a road record of 10 games under .500 or worse. In fact, the 1987 Minnesota Twins went 29-52 on the road -- and won their division.
"I have no explanation for how a good team plays well at home and then goes on the road and struggles as badly as we did in '87 -- and as bad as we're struggling this year on the road," Cubs assistant general manager Randy Bush, who played on that Twins team, said this week. "We're going on the road here, and I fully expect us to have a great road trip, and I know that our players have been talking about going out and having a great road trip. It's on their mind."
The 1987 Twins made the postseason thanks to a 56-25 home record. The Cubs are on pace to become the fourth team since divisional play was introduced in 1969 to win their division despite being 10-plus games under .500 on the road. The 2006 Cardinals and 2008 White Sox also won division crowns with subpar road records.
"I remember saying we should wear our home uniforms on the road," said Ozzie Guillen, the White Sox manager in '08. His team was 35-46 on the road that season but won the AL Central by a game over Minnesota. You might think a Type-A personality such as Guillen would try anything -- besides changing uniforms -- to alter his team's fortunes on the road, but he said staying the course is actually what's best.
"When you do that, you panic," Guillen said of changing the road routine. "And your players see that. You have to stay the same no matter what it is, good or bad."
Keeping even-keeled is one of Maddon's strengths, so the Cubs are covered there. Like Bush's Twins, Maddon's team simply keeps believing that the next trip will be a winning one.
"We had a passionate home crowd, and we thrived off of that," Bush said. "And we played really well. Then we would go on the road and have great expectations -- every time -- and every time we would really struggle. And kept repeating it over and over."
What Bush describes sounds eerily similar to the Cubs this season. Homestand after homestand, they produce big wins and victorious series, averaging 5.62 runs per game at Wrigley. But all that excitement gets flushed down the toilet once the team hits the road, where the Cubs average 4.96 runs per game. The results on the mound are even more pronounced: 3.83 given up per game at home, 4.89 on the road.
"There was always that feeling that we would win that ballgame at home," 2006 Cardinals outfielder Brad Thompson said. "We just knew it was going to happen. For some reason on the road, we didn't have that."
Thompson points to injuries to major stars as one reason those Cards -- who were 34-47 on the road -- kept coming up short away from home. But those players also missed time at Busch Stadium. Perhaps it comes down to a team's flaws being more of an issue on the road, where the challenges are a little greater. In the Cubs' case, the team isn't as deep as it once was. It's possible that lack of depth is showing up more away from home, which then leads to players pressing. At some point, the struggles become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"We get here [home], and we relax," Javier Baez said earlier in the week. "We let the game come to us. With the record we have, we go on the road, and there's pressure to win the game before it's over."
Bush, Thompson and Guillen all said similar things. Now the Cubs have to combat the narrative as well as their opponents.
"It's a story now," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "We have to answer questions about it because we haven't played well on the road."
Rizzo is just one of many good players on the team who has pronounced home and road splits. He's hitting .322 at Wrigley Field and .244 away from the friendly confines. Pitcher Kyle Hendricks has a 4.32 road ERA compared to a 1.98 mark at home. The list goes on and on.
"I gauge the homers," Rizzo said. "It's about the same. Just the average isn't the same. It's been a team-wide thing."
Kyle Schwarber added: "I haven't thought about it. I guess that's a good thing."
Although three teams have won their divisions with poor road records, it's much more common for a decent team to miss out on the postseason due to road woes. Six teams since 1969 have compiled 50-plus-win seasons at home but come up short for the playoffs.
One thing working in the Cubs' favor is that every team in the NL Central is currently below .500 on the road. Still, they'd like to make things easier on themselves. It never did get easier for those '87 Twins.
"I still vividly remember clinching a postseason berth on the road, without too many games left in the season, and then losing every single game on the rest of that road trip, and [manager] Tom Kelly was so mad," Bush recalled with a laugh.
There is good news, lest you think sneaking into the playoffs with a woeful road record -- and without home-field advantage -- means a quick October exit. Those 1987 Twins won two of three on the road over the Detroit Tigers in the AL Championship Series. And although they went 0-3 on the road in the World Series, they still won a championship by going 4-0 at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. The 2006 Cardinals went 5-3 on the road in the postseason -- and also won the World Series. It can be done.
"It's all about getting there," Thompson said. "I remember having that feeling that once we got to San Diego [for the division series], it didn't feel like an 83-win team. It felt like a juggernaut."
It's a good message for Cubs fans who don't believe the team can go far in October. Once the playoffs start, home and road records during the regular season don't matter. "It's a clean slate," Thompson said. "That's how we looked at it."
But first the Cubs have to get there. A 10-game road trip is another chance for them to write a new script regarding their fortunes in ballparks not named Wrigley Field. They can't even blame hostile environments for their road issues.
"We also get a lot of fans on the road," Baez said. "It should be the same. We have to take this [good play] to a road trip."