The Cubs have enough high-end talent, layers of depth and big-game experience to hang on and win the National League Central. The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals are also flawed teams that didn’t really expect to be here, either, only two games behind the defending World Series champs on Sept. 11.
But it’s harder to believe this offense will be ready for prime time and able to beat Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals three times in a five-game series — or wear down Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers again — much less generate the sustained pressure to win three playoff rounds.
Just listen to manager Joe Maddon, who sounded like he was running out of ideas after watching his team score three runs total while the Brewers pulled off a three-game sweep over the weekend: “All of a sudden this series, we chose not to hit.”
After getting shut out in the first Friday night regular-season game in Wrigley Field history, the Cubs got two garbage-time runs on Saturday after the Brewers built 15-0 lead, and then needed Hernan Perez to misjudge a flyball to right field on Sunday to score their only run.
Look at this offensive snapshot against Milwaukee: The Cubs struck out 32 times while drawing only six walks; went 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 21 men on base; and hit .196 overall with only three doubles and a solo home run.
“We’re definitely in the hunt,” Maddon said. “It’s up to us to mentally rise to that moment. It’s a mental challenge as much as anything. Yes, this time of the year, when you get to the playoffs, you’re facing good arms every night. You have to beat the better pitching to be the team you want to be. I love the challenge. I think our guys do also.
“It’s up to us now to respond properly.”
This isn’t overreacting to a small sample size or overlooking a franchise that’s made so many big investments in hitters or underselling a Brewers team that shrewdly uses defensive shifts and advance scouting reports and hired a pitching coach (Derek Johnson) who used to work for the Cubs.
The Nationals (748), Colorado Rockies (733) and Arizona Diamondbacks (710) are the only NL teams that have scored more runs than the Cubs (707) so far this season. And the Cubs have averaged 5.7 runs per game since Aug. 1. But that stat is skewed by the stretch where the Cubs played 13 games in a row against last-place teams, and six wins where they put up football scores: 16, 15, 13, 17, 17 and 14.
“Every day, (Joe) sends us the lineup in the morning and he’s kind of tried every combination to find that consistency, and we really haven’t found it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We have scored a lot of runs, but it seems like we’re blowing a team out once a week and scoring more than a dozen, but then having plenty of nights where it’s not there.
“It has been inconsistent, and I think Joe has been as frustrated as anyone trying to find that right combination. Hopefully, we’ll find it.”
Without Dexter Fowler’s name to put at the top of his iPad, Maddon has used 10 different leadoff hitters this season and gone through 129 lineup combinations (including pitchers) in 143 games.
Ben Zobrist — the other switch-hitter who saw so many pitches and made this feel like an American League lineup last year — has gone from being the World Series MVP to a part-time player. It’s impossible to know how much of that is Zobrist’s age (36) or injuries or fatigue after back-to-back championship runs with the Cubs and Kansas City Royals — or a new reality with two more seasons left on his $56 million contract.
After becoming a Chicago legend, Kyle Schwarber got demoted to Triple-A Iowa this summer and has also morphed into a kind of platoon hitter, though his numbers have spiked since that minor-league reboot (13 homers and an .876 OPS).
Jason Heyward is a Gold Glove outfielder, a clubhouse leader and a more productive offensive player, but his .702 OPS is still 47 points below the league average.
Remember when Maddon protected Addison Russell during his 2015 rookie season by batting him ninth in 117 games? Switch-hitting rookie Ian Happ — two years removed from his draft class and with only 26 Triple-A games on his resume — has gotten more than 90 percent of his plate appearances between the leadoff and sixth spots in the lineup and delivered 21 homers.
Russell didn’t make the leap to superstardom he hoped for after a 21-homer, 95-RBI season, and the Cubs have to be prepared for the possibility that he might not come back this year as he deals with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
Javier Baez has proven that he can be an excellent big-league shortstop who can hit for power (21 homers) and average (.282 since the All-Star break). But a scout tracking the Cubs also made this observation: “He’s going back to that Hail Mary swing now.”
“It’s just working the good at-bat, going up there and getting into the count if you can,” Maddon said. “It’s about squaring up more baseballs. It’s about hitting the ball hard more consistently.
“Beyond that, when you get chances to score runs with outs — when the runner needs to be moved — move him. When you have a chance to score a run with a runner on third and less than two outs, score that run somehow. (Against) good pitchers, you have to take advantage of all those different moments. And on the other side, you have to pitch better than good pitching to beat them.”
The good news for the Cubs is that the New York Mets look nothing like the team that swept them out of the 2015 NL Championship Series with their power pitching and precise game plans. Instead of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the Cubs will face Robert Gsellman, a decimated Matt Harvey and Seth Lugo in a three-game series that begins Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.
Maybe Anthony Rizzo — who now has three straight seasons with more than 30 homers and 100-plus RBIs — is right when he says: “It’s kind of the flow of the season, the ups and downs.”
But no one would have predicted Jon Jay having to be such an important part of this offense, or Tommy La Stella starting this often in a pennant race after taking his New Jersey sabbatical last year and going 1-for-3 in playoff rosters, or the Cubs being this inconsistent when Kris Bryant’s OPS (.924) is not far from where he finished his MVP campaign (.939).
“I’ve always said with each player here: ‘You are who you are,’” Bryant said. “And I think at the end of the year, that’s how things will turn up. I believe that as a team, too. I think we’re a winning team. We’re a playoff team. And I think at the end of the year, that’s where we’ll be.”