There are many peaks and valleys throughout the course of 162 games. That’s why it’s always best to take a measured, pragmatic approach during a six-month season. But with the Chicago Cubs now clinging to a one-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, fans have every right to feel anxious.
The Brewers are in the midst of a torrid 10-2 stretch over the last 12 games, which included three wins over the Cubs. How has Joe Maddon’s crew been over their last 12 outings? A less-than-stellar 5-7. Also, the St. Louis Cardinals have held serve the past couple of weeks to keep them just 3.5 games back in the division standings.
We’ve seen a lot of frustrating moments this season. From erratic starting pitching to injuries to lineup slumps, there have been plenty of circumstances that could’ve derailed the Cubs throughout the year. Yet, they’ve been able to stay atop their division and maintain the best record in the National League in the second half.
So why worry now? The key difference is that the remaining schedule comes into play.
No, they aren’t dealing with a bunch of juggernauts to end the season. The Cubs and Brewers both face opponents with similar combined winning percentages (.495 and .493, respectively), and the Cardinals have a much harder stretch against teams with a combined .564 winning percentage the rest of the way.
The scheduling problem stems from the number of games left.
Last week, MLB and the Washington Nationals dropped the ball when handling rain delays and postponements. While they technically didn’t play a game last Friday and Sunday, the team still had to come to the park and get into their pregame routine.
That isn’t really an off day. Sure, they aren’t laying brick, but the mental fatigue can’t be ignored when talking about creatures of habit. Is it really fair to chalk up hours of prep and waiting as a day off? Sounds more like a waste of energy.
With a makeup game against the Nationals pending on Thursday, the Cubs are about to embark on a stretch of 19 games in 20 days. Before last Friday, they played 16 days in a row.
Every team deals with fatigue or long stretches throughout the season. However, when you add that to the other problems currently plaguing the Cubs, it can threaten their chances of maintaining the division lead.
Just as the starting rotation turned a corner in August, bullpen struggles started to surface. The issue might stem from overuse earlier in the season or the loss of closer Brandon Morrow in July. Without Morrow, the Cubs have been forced to juggle the back half of the bullpen to close out games.
Pedro Strop, Justin Wilson and Carl Edwards Jr. arguably have the best stuff of all the available relievers, but each has a history of struggling with command from time to time. Most recently, Edwards has struggled in high-pressure situations with two costly outings against the Brewers this month.
Steve Cishek or Jesse Chavez could take the mantle at closer, but is it worth removing either from the current roles they excel at? Chavez has been an exceptional reliever who can pitch multiple innings, and Cishek continues to be one of the best setup men in baseball despite being on pace to surpass his career high in inning pitched.
The bullpen, which had been arguably one of the best in baseball, is now being shuffled around without a solidified closer. Instead of giving those guys much needed rest, Maddon and co. are being forced to use more arms to finish outings.
The long stretch of games could either tax an already heavily used bullpen or force the Cubs to use their starters longer. The latter scenario isn’t ideal because this is the time of year you’d like to rest your rotation for the playoffs. But you can’t rest for the postseason without being guaranteed a spot, right?
When it comes to the lineup, cold streaks from Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, Addison Russell and Ian Happ also could complicate things during this long stretch. Since Aug. 1, each have alarmingly woeful numbers:
- Contreras – .200/.310/.280 (1 home run, 13 RBI and a .590 OPS)
- Almora – .237/.287/.301 (1 home run, 3 RBI and a .588 OPS)
- Russell – .214/.257/.229 (0 home runs, 3 RBI and a .485 OPS)
- Happ – .186/.280/.326 (2 home runs, 9 RBI and a .606 OPS)
Contreras and Russell are especially concerning. Prior to the season, many fans and experts alike would’ve expected higher home run and RBI totals. Kyle Schwarber also has been an anomaly in the lineup this year. He’s slashing .245/.358/.521 with 25 home runs, 53 RBI and a .879 OPS against righties but only .211/.349/.239 with 0 home runs, 5 RBI and a .588 OPS against lefties.
With those slumps and inconsistencies in mind, resting key pieces like Anthony Rizzo, Daniel Murphy, Ben Zobrist or Kris Bryant over the next 20 days becomes tricky. Bryant, who recently came off the disabled list, certainly could benefit from a few off days to avoid reaggravating his left shoulder.
No one likes to get into “what ifs,” but some of them are valid now. If Morrow and Yu Darvish were healthy, Tyler Chatwood was a sustainable option and certain hitters played to their capabilities, navigating this stretch would be much easier.
Instead, the Cubs are forced to combat their latest issues while playing a long slate of games. If they drop out of the division lead and land a Wild Card spot, they’re forced to play in a one-game playoff and be road warriors if they advance.
But if they battle back in the coming weeks to hold onto the division lead, they could be physically spent by the time October rolls around. It’s the ultimate catch-22.
The core members of this team have a solid track record in overcoming adversity. Time and time again, they’ve shown their mental toughness and risen to the occasion. No one would be surprised if they flipped the switch like they have in years past to make another deep run in 2018.
Still, the situation they stare down warrants some anxiety from Cub fans.