NEW YORK — John Lackey became the snapshot of frustration on the Citi Field video board, a TV camera capturing his “God damn it!” reaction after Asdrubal Cabrera hammered an 88-mph fastball over the center-field wall for a four-run lead in the fourth inning.
Seeing the New York Mets might evoke memories of the 2015 team that caught fire and won 97 games before fizzling out in the National League Championship Series, but these Cubs have already played most of their cards, pushing the buttons struggling teams push to jolt the clubhouse.
Simon the Magician isn’t walking through that door, because the Cubs have largely outgrown Joe Maddon’s stunts. Theo Epstein hasn’t gone Full Metal Sveum, threatening to send struggling hitters down to Triple-A Iowa, mostly because the Cubs don’t have better internal options.
Another classic Lackey response after Monday’s night 6-1 loss, when a reporter mentioned that Maddon suggested pregame the veteran pitcher might change his approach this time in Queens: “Joe doesn’t have much to do with the pitching. I don’t know what he’s talking about there.”
The St. Louis Cardinals just rearranged Mike Matheny’s staff and put their manager on notice, but the Cubs obviously can’t fire a three-time Manager of the Year two months after Maddon and his coaches got their World Series rings for ending the 108-year drought.
The Cubs already promoted Ian Happ in the middle of May — and it’s hard to envision another top prospect giving this team a shot of adrenaline and becoming this summer’s version of Kyle Schwarber or Willson Contreras.
Between Brett Anderson’s ineffectiveness/inevitable injury and Kyle Hendricks’ tendinitis, the Cubs have already dipped into their reserve depth for the rotation, and the drop-off from Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery would be extremely steep if any of these 30-something pitchers (besides Lackey) feel their age.
The July 31 trade deadline is seven weeks away, and what will the sense of urgency or desperation feel like in the front office if the Cubs keep playing like this? Of course, the Cubs are interested in controllable starting pitchers, which is like saying little kids like ice cream, because 29 other teams have the same general idea.
The big team meeting near the end of an 0-for-6 West Coast trip in late May didn’t lead to a breakthrough, the Cubs now 31-32 with 16 of their next 19 games on the road. These players will either figure it out or they won’t.
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“The group’s so damn young,” Maddon said. “You’re not looking to move them out and bring this new guy in. There’s really no reason to really want to look, other than an injury right now. These are our guys. And I believe in these guys a lot.
“Of course, I’d like to be 10 games over .500. But we’re not. We’ve earned it. We’ve earned the right to not be 10 games over .500 right now. But we’re capable of doing that.”
Not when Lackey (4-7, 5.26 ERA) gives up three homers and needs Jason Heyward to make two catches at the warning track in right-center field. After Cabrera’s second home run, Contreras had to walk out toward the mound in the fourth inning and stand in between Lackey and home plate umpire Mike Winters.
“You guys like to compare,” Lackey said. “We don’t have to be last year’s team. We just got to be better than the teams in (our division).”
Good point. The Cubs are only 1.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, and this looks and feels nothing like the NL Central of two years ago, when the Cardinals won 100 games and the Pittsburgh Pirates won 98.
That 2015 Cubs team also watched Jake Arrieta turn into the most dominant pitcher on the planet, Dexter Fowler get hot as the you-go, we-go leadoff guy, the pitching infrastructure rebuild the bullpen on the fly, Addison Russell transform the middle-infield defense and Starlin Castro accept his new role and go on one of those crazy streaks after the initial bruise to his ego.
“What it would take?” Maddon said. “Just that we get back to our offensive DNA — that guys who have not really performed to their level would. I think that’s the next thing that needs to happen and will happen, because once that happens, then the energy throughout the entire everything will accelerate.”
Jacob deGrom made this feel like the 2015 NLCS all over again, throwing a complete game, getting double plays in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings and limiting the damage to Russell’s solo home run.
“We can’t keep using that as an excuse — that the other team’s pitcher is good,” Maddon said. “We got to start beating some better pitchers. Period. You don’t get to the promised land without winning games like that.”
At what point would you become concerned?
“Whenever how many games back you are is more than how many games you got left,” Lackey said. “I don’t think we’re that close yet.”