Yu Darvish

Cubs hope starting rotation showing signs of thawing as wild first month comes to an end

Cubs hope starting rotation showing signs of thawing as wild first month comes to an end

CLEVELAND — The Cubs offense has looked unstoppable the last week and the bullpen still ranks among the best in the National League.

Now it's time for the starting pitching to step up.

In a rotation packed with the resumes and reputations of Jon Lester, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, it was Tyler Chatwood who became the first Cubs starter to throw a pitch in the seventh inning this season when he did so in the Cubs' 10-3 win over the Indians Tuesday night at Progressive Field.

It took until the 20th game of the year, on Chatwood's fourth start in a Cubs uniform. It also was the team's 8th quality start of the campaign, tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the worst mark in the National League and only the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox have fewer in the AL.

However, Chatwood didn't even get an out in that seventh inning as Cleveland's Tyler Naquin reached on an infield single to lead off, prompting a pitching change to Steve Cishek.

The Cubs began the day ranked 17th in MLB in starter's ERA, a far cry from where they thought they might be after signing Darvish and leading a lot of people (myself included) to boldly claim this as the best rotation in baseball.

It obviously hasn't played that way, despite some terrible hitting conditions in frigid weather in the season's first month.

The weather has actually been working against the Cubs pitching staff thus far, which Chatwood used to explain the fact he has walked 19 hitters in 21.2 innings in 2018, with three separate starts of at least 5 free passes.

"There's really no excuses, but we haven't really had ideal weather yet. I think that was the best start I've had for weather-wise," Chatwood said after he pitched in a constant light drizzle throughout Tuesday's game.

"I think it's just a matter of clicking. We've had a lot of rest; it's tough to get into a routine, but I think once we get rolling, I'll clean that up. I need to."

Chatwood went a week in between starts the last two times out and before that, it was 8 days. All these rain/snowouts has really done a number on the routines and habits of the Cubs starting pitchers. Lester admitted the same thing last week.

The Cubs are currently in a stretch of 8 games in 8 days and — knock on wood — it appears the snow and wintry weather is gone from Chicago until far later this year. So every member of the Cubs rotation is on track to throw on regular rest for the first time all year.

That being said, the weather hasn't been the reason behind Darvish's fifth-inning meltdowns and the walks are troublesome with Chatwood, who has a history of control issues. He walked 4.7 batters per nine innings with the Rockies last season and sits at 4.3 per nine for his career.

"I don't think it's a good recipe for success any time you let free baserunners on," Chatwood said. "Throughout my career, I don't really get hit around. It's whenever I walk guys and give up the basehit is when I get hurt.

"Obviously clean that up and I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that I will."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Willson Contreras throws shade at Yu Darvish

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Willson Contreras throws shade at Yu Darvish

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Rich Campbell (Chicago Tribune) and Jay Cohen (Associated Press) join Kap on the panel. Willson Contreras says Yu Darvish lets up with two outs. Was the young catcher right to criticize the veteran pitcher? And what’s your level of concern with the big free agent hurler?

Plus Matt Forte and Devin Hester retire as members of the Bears. Is Devin Hester’s next stop in Canton? And will the franchise’s career passing leader get a day like this?

As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

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USA TODAY

As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

Jed Hoyer is right: You can't make any claims about these Cubs one way or the other.

It's too early and the weather/schedule has been far too wacky for any strong statements about who, exactly, the 2018 Cubs are. 

"I don't think you can really evaluate much so far," Hoyer said. "There's no rhythm to the season yet. The game's been played in terrible condition for the most part.

"Positively or negatively, I don't think you can draw big conclusions based on what's happened. ... There's a lot of games to be played. We'll forget this time quickly and remember what it's like to be in [Wrigley] when it's not freezing. It's been a little choppy and hard to evaluate, for sure."

You can shout "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE" from the Wrigleyville rooftops all you'd like, but that's not even why it's impossible to draw conclusions about the identity of this team.

The 8-8 Cubs have already had five postponements due to weather to start the 2018 season, including four on the recent homestand (and a makeup game on Thursday, which was originally scheduled as a travel day). The last time this franchise had five games in April called on account of weather was back in 1967 and there are still another 10 days left in the month for the weather to possibly mess with. 

This will surely go down as one of the oddest starts to a season in Cubs history, with a 17-inning game played on the second day of the year, followed by a 10-inning game the next day. The Cubs were supposed to start the campaign with six straight games, but the last contest in Cincinnati was postponed, so they got an impromptu two-day break, which was good at the time for Anthony Rizzo to rest his ailing back and the bullpen to catch their breath.

After a four-game series in Milwaukee's domed stadium in which the Cubs finally looked to be showing some rhythm, the weather reared its ugly head again.

The 11-day homestand featured four postponed games, maybe the worst weather game in Wrigley Field history (Saturday) and yet another impromptu two-day break. This week alone, the Cubs played two games in a five-day span.

All of that has led to an inconsistent product.

One day, the Cubs look like an offensive juggernaut, going 5-for-9 with runners in scoring position, chasing an opposing starter before the fifth inning and scoring in bunches, as they showed Thursday in the 8-5 win over the Cardinals.

But in half the games this year, they can't seem to buy a hit against pitchers most Cubs fans haven't even heard of.

One day, the starting rotation flashes its elite potential, only to get battered around the next night.

"We haven't pitched very well," said Jon Lester, who allowed only an unearned run across six innings Thursday. "I'm not gonna speak for hitters; I don't like to cross that line by any means. But I feel like we've had some really good offensive games and our pitching staff as a whole hasn't stepped up.

"I think things will get better if we can get some games in. You got pitchers that are going on 6, 7, 8 days rest all the time. It's hard to get in that rhythm, especially when it's cold out. It's hard to find the ball; it's hard to find that release point."

Lester isn't one for making excuses and the Cubs aren't doing that. Every team in baseball has to go through these head-scratching weather issues, but it's impossible to point to the team's starting pitching inconsistency without including the schedule caveat. 

Baseball players — and starting pitchers, in specific — are creatures of habit and yet everybody is trying to navigate this new terrain.

Kyle Hendricks is still throwing a bunch on the side during all these rain/snow-outs, but most relievers are saving their bullets. Position players are still working out and getting their time in the cages, but that doesn't help everything.

The team that set records for their defensive prowess in 2016 has been inconsistent in the field this year, though their manager has an idea why.

"When you don't play consistently, the feel, the nuance, that escapes you," Joe Maddon said. 

The same issues that plagued the Cubs during their World Series "hangover" last year still seem to be around — not coming up with the timely hit, poor situational hitting overall, too many walks from the pitching staff.

But there are also reasons for optimism.

Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are showing development offensively and the lineup has missed its anchor (Anthony Rizzo) for almost half the season (seven games). Carl Edwards Jr. is limiting his walks and the Cubs bullpen has been the team's saving grace for the first three weeks.

The starting rotation is still iffy, but with resumes like Lester's, Kyle Hendricks', Jose Quintana's and Yu Darvish's, that figures to even out over a larger sample size.

The Cubs haven't fallen too far back in the standings (3 games behind the NL Central-leading Pittsburgh Pirates) and more importantly than anything, they've been able to stay healthy, apart from minor back issues for Rizzo and Ben Zobrist.

The weather still doesn't look great in Colorado, Cleveland or back in Chicago next week, but eventually things will warm up and the sun will come out on a regular basis.

And eventually enough games will be played — and not postponed — where statements about who the 2018 Cubs are can be identified conclusively.

It's just not that time...yet.