MLB NEWS

Struggling Cubs still have time in NL Central

Sports Xchange

June 15, 2017 at 12:43 am.

Jun 13, 2017; New York City, NY, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez (9) celebrates his two run home run against the New York Mets with Chicago Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. (5) during the ninth inning at Citi Field. Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 13, 2017; New York City, NY, USA; Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez (9) celebrates his two run home run against the New York Mets with Chicago Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. (5) during the ninth inning at Citi Field. Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — The defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs are underwater.

They suffered a 9-4 loss to the Mets at Citi Field on Wednesday night to fall to 32-33. At this point a year ago, they were 45-20.

This defeat was particularly stinging. The Cubs held a 4-1 lead on Kyle Shwarber’s two-run home run in the top of the fourth inning, and their relief pitchers, to date the best-functioning part of the organization, gave up six runs in four innings.

Chicago is fortunate to be playing in the NL Central. They go into play on Thursday in second place, just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. They are eight games off the pace for the second wild card.

“We’ve earned the right to be in this position. We’ve played well enough to be a .500 club,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We have a nice group and I believe in our group, but we have to prove it on the field.”

Anthony Rizzo said, “We’re battling, grinding and that’s what it is until we take off. … I don’t think it’s too late.

“Go back to 2015 where we were hovering around .500 or five games up and then we take off in August,” he added, referencing the team that was 35-30 but came on to win 97 games, grab the last wild-card spot and reach the NL Championship Series. “And this year the division isn’t 15 games out of reach. That’s the silver lining of all of it. You have to keep playing.”

Wednesday night’s game aside, the relief pitching had been the brightest spot. Coming in with a 3.31 ERA, the bullpen had ranked second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The club ranked eighth of 15 in runs scored and last in the league with a .222 batting average with runners in scoring position. If not for a penchant for hitting home runs — 87 in 64 games before Wednesday — Chicago wouldn’t be one of the five teams in the NL with a positive run differential (plus-3).

But the most obvious difference has been the starting pitching. In the 2016 championship season, the Cubs had 45 quality starts through 64 games and starting pitchers had a 2.33 ERA. This season, they have 24 quality starts and a 4.68 ERA. Worse, the Cubs’ starters are getting just 16 outs per start. Going 5 1/3 innings isn’t part of a winning formula.

The issue could be the team’s recent success, believe it or not. For two straight seasons, Chicago starters have pitched an extra month. They may not be as strong or accurate right now because of this. By using them less right now, Maddon believes they will round into form before it’s too late.

“For me, it’s more the residue of the last two years of them throwing. I absolutely believe that,” Maddon said. “We took it easy on them in spring training. We didn’t push them early.”

He said he’s not pushing them hard right now. He doesn’t want his starters going much more than 100 pitches now so they will tune up later. Only Jon Lester has been given the blessing to go more than 110 pitches. The issue is they aren’t sharp enough yet to consistently get through six innings on those 100 pitches.

One other matter: As accomplished as some of the Cubs’ everyday players are, most are fairly young and the team has added others with even less experience. Remember that outfielder Dexter Fowler signed with St. Louis and catcher David Ross retired.

“(Second baseman Ian) Happ didn’t play in the big leagues last year. (Catcher Wilson) Contreras played half a season. Schwarber did not play at all. (Shortstop Javier) Baez was a backup player,” Maddon said. “So I love my names as much as everybody else does, but these are young and inexperienced guys. What you’re seeing is young guys battling to get back to what we had been last year, but without the benefit of having veteran experience.”

Rizzo said, “We’re developing guys and winning ballgames at the same time, and teams don’t do that. We developed guys last year and won the World Series. No team has done that, I don’t think. You have to take your lumps sometime.”

To a man, the Cubs are disappointed with where they are right now. They were the prohibitive favorite to win the World Series. They saw the same things in their clubhouse that everyone else saw and expected to play well again. But few seem down.

“We have not played our best baseball yet, but we are still highly pertinent in this division,” Maddon said. “I know we have a nice run in us — I know we do.”