ST. LOUIS – The Cubs are without a simple explanation for their uneven start, not totally buying the World Series hangover theory, not having a devastating injury as an excuse and not noticing a new sense of entitlement in the clubhouse.
Being surprised that the Cubs are hovering around .500 might be the wrong way to look at it. This is a team that has allowed 41 runs in the first inning, put up a 4.56 rotation ERA, committed 27 errors through 34 games and watched underperforming hitters up and down the lineup. It could be so much worse.
“I don’t think it’s complacency at all,” Hoyer said Friday before the Cubs inched to 18-17 with a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. “There’s no diagnostic test for why we’re a .500 team right now. It’s not like you can say we’re missing this or we’re lacking that. Ultimately, we’re a .500 team – and we’ve actually scrambled for some wins to get to that point.
“In some ways, we probably haven’t played as well as that record, but I don’t think it’s complacency. These guys are really competitive. Probably the thing that I look at the most is that we’ve had so many deficits. I feel like the whole year we’ve played from behind.
“When you’re behind a lot, it does a lot of things that are negatives. It forces hitters to press. You feel like you have to get a hit here, because we’ve got to cut into the lead. It puts players on edge. You’re constantly playing that way.
“Also, it shortens up some starts where you wish you could allow a guy to work his way in. But when you’re in the sixth inning and you’re down 3-1 or 5-2, you have to pinch-hit there. You don’t have a choice. So I just think that the nature of our early games has made this whole season feel like we’re scrambling out of the woods every night.”
Another weird aspect is that the Cubs pretty much nailed their offseason moves, except for late-winter signing Brett Anderson, who’s on the disabled list with a lower back strain and an 8.18 ERA.
The Cubs carefully selected the players they wanted to add to this mix, focusing on accomplished veterans who already owned World Series rings. Wade Davis – who has two wins, eight saves and a 0.00 ERA – might be the best closer on the planet. Koji Uehara – who has held the opponent scoreless in 14 of his 16 outings – is an elite setup guy. Jon Jay (.299 average) is an ideal extra outfielder and mentor to Albert Almora Jr.
But this isn’t about one big move or a quick fix almost 25 percent into the schedule. It’s all the little things that have added up to a fourth-place team so far. These Cubs aren’t playing defense at a historic level, the way the 2016 team made spectacular throws and catches look routine and propped up the pitching staff almost every night. So much for defense being slump-proof.
“Last year, I thought the hallmark of what we did really well was we had clean, efficient games where we led from start to finish,” Hoyer said. “We went up 4-1, got into the bad part of the bullpen and then spread it out and not even use our good bullpen to win. Those games were on a regular basis. This year, this feels like the opposite. It feels like we’re constantly fighting from behind.
“We’ve shown a lot of fight. But it feels like a lot of that fight is having to come back in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. And that’s a terrible recipe for success.”
The good news for the Cubs is that the Cardinals (19-15) aren’t running away from them and no team has separated itself yet in the National League Central. This isn’t the beginning of the Wrigleyville rebuild, trying to project prospects from the Baseball America rankings and waiting for the right free agent at the right time. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to envision the Cubs taking off again.
“I just don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet,” Hoyer said. “I can’t imagine this group – given what they went through last year, given how much they care about each other – (would) take anything for granted.
“The comforting thing is we just saw largely the same group win the World Series. We know it’s there. We know that a lot of these guys are underperforming where they will be at the end of the year.
“We’re due for an offensive outbreak. We know we can play better defense. We know we can pitch better. So we know it’s all there. Now we have to put it together.”