The Cubs’ biggest problems, Maddon said, are starting pitching and driving in runs. They are hitting a major league-worst .214 with runners in scoring position, including 0 for 5 on Monday, and their starters have a 4.75 earned run average. They are also turning fewer batted balls into outs, ranking 15th in defensive efficiency through Sunday after leading the majors last season.

Yet for all of that, the Cubs trail Milwaukee by just a game and a half in the lackluster National League Central. Two years ago, Maddon noted, the Cubs won 97 games and finished third in the division. They make no apologies now.

“A lot of it has to do with geography — I get it,” Maddon said. “We’ll take it.”

There are encouraging signs beyond the weakness of their division. The Cubs’ bullpen had held hitters to an N.L.-low .210 average before Monday, and the new closer, Wade Davis, has converted all 13 of his save chances. The Cubs had also drawn the most walks in the majors, a sign that they were staying disciplined at the plate despite poor results.

“That’s a good indicator that we’re not just going up there free-swinging,” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said. “We’re putting competitive at-bats together. I feel like we’ve done a really good job of that, especially in the past couple of weeks. We’re slowing down the game, working some counts deep.

“Obviously, there’s no panic on our side. We know what kind of team we have in here.”

Schwarber, who missed more than six months with a knee injury last season and returned to star in the World Series, is hitting just .170. But he also led all major league hitters in pitches per plate appearance through Sunday, with 4.49. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant have actually combined for a higher on-base percentage this year than last, despite lower batting averages.

More concerning is shortstop Addison Russell, who missed three games last week as Major League Baseball began an investigation into a domestic-abuse allegation made in a comment on his wife’s Instagram account. Russell has denied the claim.

Russell homered Monday but is hitting just .216, contributing to a team average that ranked below every team except the lowly San Diego Padres before Monday, and now sits at .232. To Maddon, such feeble hitting is unsustainable, and a sign that a turnaround is coming.

“You would think that if you have the eye to accept your walks, that you’d actually hit for a higher number, average-wise,” Maddon said. “I can’t deny that. It also means to me that heads up — there’s this regression back to the mean, or aggression to the mean, and we’re gonna get back to this number that’s more reminiscent of what we’re capable of doing. So if you’re drawing all those walks and seeing all those pitches, at some point, man, if you’re good, you’re gonna start hitting the ball and missing people.”

The bigger question for the Cubs is whether their rotation can handle another deep postseason run. They seem likely to shop for a starter at the trading deadline — especially with Jake Arrieta facing free agency this fall — but for now, the numbers are startling. Everyone with more than one start has an E.R.A. above 4.00, and while high-stress fall innings may be having an effect, only one starter, Kyle Hendricks, is on the disabled list.

“This thing just kind of cropped up; it’s nothing from last year in particular,” Hendricks said, referring to a sore finger on his pitching hand. “I don’t think anybody else in our rotation feels much, either. We’ve just got to get back to making pitches, get a couple of breaks to go our way. We haven’t pitched as well as we did the beginning of last year — we were just so locked in from the start.”

The Cubs’ starters are not pitching many innings, averaging about five and a third per start. But that is partly by design, Maddon said, to ease the burden not just of last postseason, but also of 2015, when the Cubs lost to the Mets in the N.L. Championship Series.

“Sometimes, they don’t like it, and that’s O.K., because this is April-May-June, and here comes August-September,” Maddon said. “By then, they’ll understand why you did it.”

By then, the Cubs will almost certainly be preparing for the playoffs. Only five N.L. teams have winning records, and the Cubs are trying to keep perspective as they wait to join that group. There are 99 games remaining, and they trail the Brewers by one in the loss column.

“I’m not a math major,” Lackey said, “but I think we’ve got a chance.”

Continue reading the main story

Source