The Cubs have used the Cincinnati Reds as a punching bag this season, beating up on the kind of rebuilding team they used to roll out at Wrigley Field. This was supposed to be a chance to pad the record, pile up stats and take out some frustrations. Both Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter and Kris Bryant’s three-homer, 5-for-5 laser show happened at Great American Ball Park.
But even seeing the Reds on the North Side – and the national exposure from seven Cubs earning All-Star selections – didn’t distract from some of the deeper issues for this World Series-or-bust team.
“Everybody goes through these trials,” manager Joe Maddon said after Wednesday afternoon’s 5-3 loss. “I can’t connect a bunch of negative dots.”
The Cubs have now lost four of their last five series, and five of their last seven, looking like a team that needs an All-Star break, if not some reinforcements by the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
The Cubs didn’t need to use their sixth starter until July 6, a remarkable run of pitching health that begins to explain their 100-win pace but probably won’t last. That’s why Adam Warren – the swingman acquired from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade – returned from a tune-up at Triple-A Iowa to face a Reds lineup that still has Joey Votto and some interesting hitters.
Warren is an in-case-of-emergency option at a time when Arrieta is still trying to rediscover his Cy Young Award feel, Jon Lester is coming off perhaps the worst start of his career, Jason Hammel might be beginning another second-half fade and John Lackey is in the middle of his age-37 season.
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“Everybody’s talking about the offensive run differential,” Maddon said. “But it’s all about starting pitching. Period.
“We’ve run into a little bit of a rough patch. That’s going to happen. But if you look around baseball right now, I’m seeing a lot of double-digit to one, double-digit to two wins. Pitchers get tired, man, regardless of their (willingness) to concede to that point or not, which they never will. That’s why you have to be kind of proactive regarding doing things like we’re doing right now involving a sixth starter.
“Protect these guys like the family jewels, man, because starting pitching, you’re not going to go out there and shake a tree and find them. They’re not going to be there.”
Warren limited the Reds to one run across five innings – a Zack Cozart homer leading off the game at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat. Warren threw 93 pitches in this spot start, allowing only two more hits and giving up zero walks after an up-and-down performance as a reliever (4.56 ERA).
But that won’t do much for a bullpen where Justin Grimm has a 5.59 ERA, there are no lefty options besides Travis Wood and Joel Peralta just got designated for assignment after a four-inning audition. This time, it was Trevor Cahill giving up the go-ahead, three-run homer to Tucker Barnhart in the seventh inning.
“It’s more likely a snapshot,” Maddon said, “just based on people in and out of the lineup right now. The bullpen isn’t 100 percent. We’re experimenting with different things.
“The big part is we need to do better in the latter part of the game scoring runs, too. If it’s close, or we get behind, or even if it’s tied, we’re just not doing a really good job of finishing off games offensively.”
That relentless lineup everyone talked about in April is 1-30 when trailing entering the ninth inning. Miguel Montero got charged with four more stolen bases, meaning the veteran catcher has gone 3-for-42 in throwing out runners this season.
With David Ross on the seven-day concussion disabled list, Lester will have to throw to rookie Willson Contreras instead of his personal catcher this weekend against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. And Maddon was saying it’s doubtful Dexter Fowler (hamstring injury) will return before the All-Star break, leaving it unclear when the leadoff guy will go on a rehab assignment and if he can play in next week’s All-Star Game.
“I really can’t explain it right now,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But we’re still going to try and go out there and get the job done. Obviously, the past few weeks, it hasn’t been working. But we still have high hope and high faith. We just got to go to the next day and get better.”