NEW YORK — For all of Joe Maddon’s present-tense happy talk, the Cubs manager had a flashback in Citi Field’s visiting dugout, thinking about how the New York Mets dominated his team during that National League Championship Series sweep.
“The primary pitfall last year was just the lack of contact when it mattered,” Maddon said. “I was standing in that corner last year when it was freezing. To see (Matt) Harvey command his changeup in the first inning with 30-degree weather and the wind howling — I took that as a bad sign.”
Even Maddon didn’t put a completely positive spin on a lineup that’s trending in the wrong direction on July 1 (though the Cubs still have a double-digit lead in the division and probably wouldn’t trade their overall group of hitters with any other franchise in the game).
Since dropping a series against the Washington Nationals in the middle of June, the Cubs have swept the Pittsburgh Pirates, got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals and lost another series to the Miami Marlins. Those swing-and-miss issues resurfaced in Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Mets, giving the Cubs seven defeats in their last eight games against playoff contenders (excluding this week’s sweep of the Cincinnati Reds, who are playing for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft).
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The Cubs clearly miss leadoff guy Dexter Fowler — who might not return from a hamstring injury until after the All-Star break — and giving at-bats to rookies Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. against New York’s power pitching could pay dividends in October.
“That was the one thing last year that bummed me out — their pitching was so on point at that time of the year,” Maddon said. “That’s really why they beat us. And they had one hitter (Daniel Murphy) that was unworldly. That’s what happened.
“Our primary problem last year was the inability to make contact against a group of pitchers that really were on top of their game.
“For the most part, we were really good this April at making contact and not striking out as much. May was not as kind. June — we’re falling backwards.
“We got to get back to where we were in April. That’s my biggest concern, if I had one. That and just keeping the bullpen right.”
The bullpen is a different story and probably a bigger issue, because the Cubs have already built their lineup and aren’t waiting on Triple-A Iowa guys and hoping for Tommy John recoveries. Beyond Fowler’s absence and the youth movement, the Cubs look like a different team when Ben Zobrist cools off in June (.707 OPS) after a red-hot May (1.136 OPS).
A new-and-improved lineup led the majors in walks (121) in April, ranking second in on-base percentage (.364) and 26th in strikeouts (167). The Cubs crept up to seventh in strikeouts (214) in May, while remaining second in on-base percentage (.349) and ranking third in walks (113). In June, the Cubs dropped to 10th in on-base percentage (.336) while rising to second in strikeouts (267) and staying at third in walks (107).
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The Cubs responded to that playoff disappointment by spending almost $290 million on free agents, swooping in to sign Zobrist (who handled New York’s power pitching and helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series), stealing Jason Heyward away from the Cardinals and bringing back Fowler in spring training, reinforcing their lineup with veterans who had career on-base percentages between .353 and .363.
“NLCS alone (had) very little (to do with it),” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “But some of the priorities we laid out this winter were a reaction to some areas of concern on the team last year. Some of those were exploited in the playoffs and to a certain extent in the NLCS.
“We wanted to add a couple more professional hitters, guys with high-contact rate (against) good pitching. We did that and wanted to improve our outfield defense, because we saw it becoming a concern throughout the year, not just during the NLCS.
“I don’t think it’s possible to make good decisions if you’re reacting to a four-game sample. But (it’s) to the extent that four games can underscore larger trends that reveal themselves (over time).”
The Cubs will leave New York on Sunday night at the halfway point of their schedule, 81 games to go before we find out if this team is as good as advertised, or if the Mets already exposed some of the issues covered up by such a fast start and all this star power.