Cubs

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

After locking up homefield advantage, Cubs flummoxed by Cardinals in blowout loss

At the end of the day, a loss means essentially nothing for the Cubs right now.

But the Cubs also certainly don't want to hand games to their division rival as the St. Louis Cardinals make a run at the National League wild card spots.

After the Cubs clinched homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs with the Washington Nationals' loss Friday night, they had no answer for the Cardinals in a 10-4 loss in front of 40,785 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday afternoon on national TV.

A few disturbing trends popped their heads above ground for the Cubs again Saturday, including the offense's struggles at manufacturing runs, Jason Hammel getting shelled and some bullpen woes.

The Cubs had no trouble putting runners on base against Cardinals phenom Alex Reyes, but they had a tough time plating those guys, cashing in only once with a runner on third base in six tries over the first four innings.

In two of those spots, a Cubs hitter came up with only one out, but failed to bring the run home as Addison Russell struck out in the first inning and Kris Bryant popped out to shallow left in the second.

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Hammel recorded only seven outs and was tagged for six runs on six hits and a walk, watching his season ERA rise nearly 30 points to 3.83. The veteran right-hander fell to 15-10 as he attempts to make a push for one of the Cubs' final postseason roster spots.

"Honestly, I would love to be a part of [the playoff roster], as the rest of the guys on the team would love to," Hammel said. "I know there's only a certain amount of spots, so if I'm handed the ball, I'll be ready. That's the way I'm gonna view it.

"Obviously you wanna be a part of something special like that, but I think everybody here has already been a part of something special to get to this point. We're all very proud. We still got eight regular season ballgames left to build some momentum. Whether I'm on the roster or not, I'm still gonna enjoy it."

Hammel was also clearly on the wrong end of some bad luck Saturday, as the four runs he allowed in the first came via a check swing and a couple hits just out of the reach of his fielders. 

Joe Maddon won't put too much stock into one rough start in late September.

"I'm not too worried about a good or bad outing right now. I'm not," he said. "Pretty much, you know who the guy is. You know if the guy's go this stuff going on or if he doesn't. ... The greater body of work matters."

Setup man Hector Rondon struggled in his appearance, needing 26 pitches to notch just one out, giving up three runs on three hits and a walk before handing the ball off to Felix Pena.

Of course, it's also just one game and one loss for a team with 98 victories and hopes of the World Series.

Rondon had been nearly unhittable since returning from the disabled list two weeks ago and the Cubs offense had been efficient and relentless in the past four games after Maddon's meeting with the hitters earlier in the week.

Maddon also used the blowout to get regulars like Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Russell out of the lineup to help keep them fresh for October.

After the game, Maddon chose to look on the bright side.

"Our starter had a tough day today; that's it. Otherwise we did some nice things," he said, referencing the solid offensive days from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. "We had chances to score runs - runners on third, less than two outs - and we didn't fulfill that.

"We made their starter throw 115 pitches in five innings; I think that's a positive."

The Cubs will close out their season series with the Cardinals on another nationally-televised showdown Sunday night between Jon Lester and St. Louis ace Carlos Martinez.

Cole Hamels explains how Cubs can survive an intense final week

Cole Hamels explains how Cubs can survive an intense final week

Cole Hamels has been here before.

A major reason why the Cubs acquired the veteran left-handed pitcher before the trade deadline was his vast postseason experience (98.1 innings) and a knowledge of what it takes to make it to — and succeed in — October.

Nobody expected him to pitch to a 1.00 ERA in his first seven starts in a Cubs uniform, so this regression that's come over his last few outings isn't anything to panic about.

Hamels lost his second straight start Monday night against the Pirates, serving up a two-out, two-run homer to Francisco Cervelli in the first inning, staking his club to a deficit they could not overcome in a 5-1 loss that left them just 1.5 games up on the Brewers in the division.

"Shoot, givin' up home runs sucks," Hamels said. "I can't shy away from it — I do give 'em up. I have given 'em up in my career. I try to minimize the damage to mostly solos.

"But at the same time, when you give them up in the first inning when you're at home, it definitely doesn't set the momentum and it creates that sort of extra game that you have to play because now you're trying to come from behind. They've obviously already done some damage and you've gotta play with that in your head of what could come throughout a game."

Really, that wasn't even the story of Monday's game.

It was the lack of offense, as Hamels provided the only run off Jameson Taillon — a 437-foot homer in the third inning he hit with a 105 mph exit velocity.

The Cubs' roller coaster offense has been a major talking point the last couple weeks of the season and figures to be the Achilles' heel of this team in October...whether that's in the NL wild-card game or in the NLDS.

In fairness to the Cubs, Taillon has been carving up every lineup he faces lately as he enters the conversation as one of the true "aces" in the game today. 

"Sometimes, you just run into the wrong guy," Joe Maddon said. "... They have a nice rotation that has given us a hard time. We have to somehow overcome that. They are good, but we gotta do better.

"The at-bats early were really well done and then Taillon just started getting command of his curveball, also. He was dropping that in when he was behind in the count for strikes.

"...Early on, I thought we had a pretty good shot, but then he just settled in and turned it up a bit."

So with the Brewers hot on their heels, what do the Cubs need to do the rest of this week against a team like the Pirates that would relish playing spoiler?

Hamels is in the midst of his 13th MLB season and he provided his perspective of how the next six days should go:

"I think I've played this game long enough — when you have an opportunity to be a spoiler, it creates a little bit more energy in the clubhouse and you play for a little bit more to kinda disrupt what's going on," he said. "For us, we just have to keep our focus and keep to the gameplan and go out there and just try to either execute pitches or execute at-bats inning by inning. 

"We do have the talent and from what I've seen, we definitely know how to put up runs — it just hasn't happened this past week. And so I think for what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish, just not try to overdo it. 

"Really just try to get back to the basics from the first pitch from the first inning and just plug away. I think if we're able to do that, good things will happen and we'll be able to overcome any sort of obstacle of what's kind of narrowing down in the last six games."

We're about to find out if the Cubs are up to the task.

Projecting the Cubs playoff roster: How should the October rotation line up?

Projecting the Cubs playoff roster: How should the October rotation line up?

If you had to pick just one Cubs starting pitcher to take the hill in a must-win game in October, who would you go with? 

Jon Lester, the guy with a ridiculous resume of postseason success?

Kyle Hendricks, aka "The Professor" who is as cold as ice and been the Cubs' best pitcher over the last six weeks?

Cole Hamels, the wily veteran and former World Series MVP who has been rejuvenated since coming over in a midseason trade?

There's a legit case to be made for all three pitchers to start either a wild-card game (Cubs are crossing their fingers they don't need to worry about that) or Game 1 of the NLDS next week.

Hamels, however, looks to be falling back slightly in the race after giving up another homer Monday night — a long two-out blast to Francisco Cervelli in the first inning of the Cubs' 4-1 loss.

It was the sixth homer Hamels has allowed in his last four starts, but that was the only damage he was charged with Monday night as the only other run scored was unearned thanks to Kris Bryant's error.

"Shoot, givin' up home runs sucks," Hamels said. "I can't shy away from it — I do give 'em up. I have given 'em up in my career. I try to minimize the damage to mostly solos."

The 34-year-old Hamels still has a 2.60 ERA in a Cubs uniform and even chipped in with the bat, drilling a 437-foot homer to the centerfield bleachers for the Cubs' only run off Pittsburgh ace Jameson Taillon.

With one start remaining for each pitcher, it appears to be down to Hendricks or Lester for role of Game 1 starter.

After another gem Sunday against the White Sox, Hendricks now sports a 1.37 ERA and 0.79 WHIP over his last six starts. He has set a new career high in innings pitched (191) after tossing 16.1 frames over his last two starts and certainly looks to be peaking at just the right time for the Cubs.

Lester, meanwhile, got through a little midseason hiccup and has been fantastic over the last month-plus, as well. He boasts a 1.96 ERA and 1.23 WHIP over his last seven starts and his postseason resume speaks for itself — 9-7, 2.55 ERA, 1.03 WHIP in 148 innings. 

Right now, my money's on Hendricks to start Game 1, as he did last season in Washington D.C. Lester would likely follow, with Hamels after that and Jose Quintana filling out the rotation (again, assuming the Cubs are playing the NLDS and not the wild-card game).

Of course, the Cubs have to get to the postseason first and though they're close to locking up a fourth straight playoff berth, they still have to fend off the hard-charging Brewers.

As we always do with this column, we'll line up how the Cubs' playoff roster and Game 1 lineup might look RIGHT NOW, in which case, the Cubs would be hosting the winner of the wild-card game. The Brewers are currently the first wild-card team, which means they will host the one-game playoff and as such, we'll project them to win thanks to homefield advantage.

If Milwaukee throws Jhoulys Chacin in the wild-card game, they would probably start lefty Wade Miley in Game 1 of the NLDS. Here's how the Cubs might line up against Miley:

1. Daniel Murphy - 2B
2. Ben Zobrist - RF
3. Javy Baez - SS
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Kris Bryant - 3B
6. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Kyle Hendricks - P
9. Kyle Schwarber - LF

It's tough to put Schwarber so low in the order when he's entered the final week of the regular season as the Cubs' hottest hitter, but those splits are real. He just hit his first homer of the season off a lefty Sunday and sports a .671 OPS vs. southpaws compared to an .884 OPS against righties.

Addison Russell would normally find his way in the lineup against a left-handed pitcher — moving Baez to third base and Bryant to left field — but he's on administrative leave and his status for the postseason is currently unknown. 

David Bote could also get the start at third base and push Bryant to left against a southpaw this October. Bote hasn't done much at the plate since his ultimate grand slam in mid-August, but he still boasts a .903 OPS against lefties.

The Cubs could also opt to go with Jason Heyward in the outfield against lefties, playing right and pushing Zobrist to left. There are several options at Maddon's disposal and everything will likely change on a game-to-game basis, as per usual.

The real key to this lineup — especially against lefties — will be Bryant. He sat out Sunday to let his "fatigued" shoulder rest and was back in the lineup Monday, but he's been a shell of his former self since the middle of May when he first injured that left shoulder.

If he's right, he'll probably be hitting second for the Cubs in October. But since he's struggled to get going, Maddon has opted for Zobrist in the 2-hole behind Murphy of late.

This lineup would leave the Cubs' bench looking like this:

Victor Caratini
Jason Heyward
David Bote
Terrance Gore
Tommy La Stella
Ian Happ

With Russell's status unclear, there's a clear spot on the postseason roster for Happ, who we had outside the bubble last week in this column

Assuming Russell is not available for October, the only other position player options would be Taylor Davis or Mike Freeman and the only way those guys would find their way on a postseason roster would be due to injury.

The Cubs have utilized 14 position players in the past and this bench of six guys would figure to provide Maddon with plenty of options, including Gore's gamebreaking speed.

Starting rotation

Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Cole Hamels
Jose Quintana

As we've discussed earlier, Hendricks has had a fantastic week and will be riding a heck of a hot streak into October if he can have a solid final start. 

Bullpen

Pedro Strop
Jesse Chavez
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Carl Edwards Jr.
Mike Montgomery
Jorge De La Rosa

A lot has changed here over the last week, with Brandon Morrow ruled out for the season and Strop feeling good after his hamstring injury.

Maddon said Strop was feeling really good over the weekend and kind of bouncing around with excitement as he nears a return.

Could he still make an appearance in a game this week before the regular season ends?

It's possible.

"The difference is that he's able to throw," Maddon said. "Had he not been able to throw while he's going through all this, then it'd be a different story entirely. But he's been able to keep his arm moving, pretty much at 100 percent almost. So as his leg feels better, his arm's ready to go."

That would be a huge boost to this bullpen as the postseason draws near, depending on how effective Strop can be with what will be roughly two weeks off in between appearances by the time he does make it back.

The final bullpen spot sure looks like De La Rosa's to lose at the moment. 

Dillon Maples was making a potential push as a darkhorse candidate but struggled against the White Sox and probably has pitched his way out of contention.

Maddon went to both Jaime Garcia and Alec Mills Monday night in what was a Cubs deficit, but still a close game and if the Cubs need an extra arm, those may be the two guys lobbying for the final spot. 

If Strop suffers a setback or is unable to find his form enough to where he is not active for a postseason series, Mills may be the better bet. Garcia has far more experience, but it'd be hard to see the Cubs roll with four lefties in the bullpen and the right-handed Mills has impressed this season with the Cubs (2.87 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 19 Ks in 15.2 IP).

The other good news for this unit is they've actually been pretty well rested of late. After a really tough stretch, Maddon has not had to lean on his best relievers much over the last 10 days, so they should be rested and freseh for the final week of the regular season and into October, especially if the Cubs can lock up the division and get Monday through Wednesday off next week.