Many of the Chicago Cubs issues so far this season have been first-world baseball problems. However, one significant problem that’s haunted Joe Maddon’s crew through the first three months is the failure to capitalize.
The Cubs have yet to put their foot on the gas and start taking control of the NL Central. There have been several instances where they’ve had openings to fatten up their win total but failed to cash in. This weekend’s series against the Cincinnati Reds was the latest example of not seizing a golden opportunity.
Despite coming off a three-game winning streak, the Reds still entered the first game of the series in the basement of NL Central with a 28-45 record. The Cubs, meanwhile, came in tied for the division lead with the Milwaukee Brewers, and had Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana lined up to take the mound for Thursday and Friday’s games, respectively.
Taking at least three out of four from the Reds was a must, as it would’ve helped the Cubs gain much-needed separation. And given Saturday’s game was slated to be a bullpen outing, taking the first two with Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana on the mound was almost mandatory.
Instead, the Cubs got swept in nauseating fashion and now trail the Brewers by 2.5 games as of Sunday afternoon. Aside from Saturday’s 11-2 shellacking, they held leads in the three other games.
Hendricks was cruising Thursday with a 2-0 lead but ran into problems in the sixth inning. With the bases loaded and two outs, Hendricks got ahead of Eugenio Suarez with two strikes but ended up walking Suarez to force in a run.
Maddon promptly pulled Hendricks at 89 pitches and brought in reliever Randy Rosario. Rosario, who hadn’t allowed a home run all year, served up a grand slam to Jesse Winker to give the Reds a 6-2 lead and eventually the victory.
Quintana followed up Hendricks’ outing with an even rougher performance during Friday’s 6-3 loss. After early command issues and a run allowed, Quintana settled into a groove and held a 3-1 lead. However, when the third time through the order began in the fifth, he gave up an RBI single to Joey Votto before surrendering a two-run homer to the previous day’s hero, Suarez.
Sunday’s loss was even more gut-wrenching because Mike Montgomery was cruising most of the afternoon. After entering the seventh inning with a 6-1 lead, he and reliever Pedro Strop combined to give up seven runs to the Reds, failing to register the first out until after the lead was lost.
Similar opportunities to gain ground presented themselves so far this year. The Cubs split the season-opening, four-game series against the lowly Miami Marlins, being embarrassingly shut out 6-0 in the finale. During a stretch of the season in April and early May, they experienced painful series losses against the Braves, Pirates, Rockies and Cardinals.
But it hasn’t just been against bottom-feeders or mediocre teams. Two weeks ago, they also froze up during a three-game set versus the Brewers. After taking the first game against Milwaukee, they lost the last two games in uninspiring efforts and failed to break through for the division lead.
By not taking advantage now, two problems could present themselves as the season progresses. They could get into a similar situation like they did last year where they need a hot post All-Star stretch to take the division crown. And like last year, it could leave them gassed at some point in the postseason.
The other potential problem is that all these unnecessary losses could leave them in a wildcard position come playoff time, meaning more games and no home-field advantage. The worst case scenario is that the losses leave them on the outside looking in.
No one is calling for a major shakeup. With a team as talented as the Cubs, no major moves need to be made by July’s trade deadline. If everyone plays to their capability, there is no reason they shouldn’t have a killer’s mindset and start rattling off long stretches of wins.
It’s very possible that they’ll start gaining separation soon and pull away shortly after the All-Star break. But if that doesn’t start in the coming weeks, it could prove costly down the road.