The Cubs played a sloppy game leading up to the All-Star selection show they dominated on Tuesday night, falling into a five-run hole by the third inning against a last-place Cincinnati Reds team tanking for the future.
So much of the conversation about the Cubs on talk shows and Twitter revolves around sheer panic or nothing-to-see-here scolding when you point out a flaw. Maybe that’s simply the nature of social media and this franchise’s history. But after an ugly 9-5 loss, a young, talented, banged-up group with seven All-Stars exists somewhere in between those two extremes in the middle of a 162-game season.
With Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant, the Cubs can now be the first team since the 1963 St. Louis Cardinals to have their entire infield starting the All-Star Game. Add outfielder Dexter Fowler – also voted in through the fan ballot – and the Cubs are the first team since the 1985 San Diego Padres to have five players named to start the All-Star Game.
Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta – voted in by the players – could throw the first pitch with all the flashbulbs popping in front of an international TV audience. New York Mets manager Terry Collins also added Jon Lester to the National League pitching staff.
The Cubs (52-31) have the hot start that generated all this All-Star buzz, creating what's now almost a double-digit cushion in the division. The infrastructure is there for what should be a very bright future.
But this has still been a meh stretch, losing series to the Washington Nationals, Cardinals and Miami Marlins since the middle of June and getting swept by the Mets over the weekend in New York, where it felt like last year’s NL Championship Series all over again.
Veteran pitcher John Lackey didn’t bring his “Big Boy Game” this time, zoning out on a David Ross passed ball, throwing his hands over his head in frustration and reacting too slow to cover home plate in the first inning, allowing Reds speedster Billy Hamilton to score from second base.
Manager Joe Maddon flipped out in the second inning, got ejected for arguing “egregious” balls and strikes with home plate umpire Jerry Meals in the middle of a Ross at-bat and spent his afternoon working out, taking a steam bath and eating some raisin bread with butter.
A shaky defense also committed two errors, an inconsistent offense hit four homers but went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and Lackey gave up six runs on six hits and five walks in six innings.
Yes, Lackey felt squeezed: “It happens. Guys miss calls. I miss pitches. Nobody’s perfect out there. But the problem you run into is when guys are just adamant and not wanting to admit they could have missed it. We’re all men out here.”
A crowd of 41,310 started booing and heading toward the exits after Cincinnati trade chip Jay Bruce launched a Pedro Strop slider out toward the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer in the ninth inning.
The Cubs are 18-3 against the Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates – and 34-28 versus the rest of their schedule so far – and don’t look quite as invincible anymore. Some of this is natural regression, and some of it is the 24-games-in-24-days-stretch before the All-Star break. The lineup also clearly misses Fowler as a catalyst at the top of the order while he recovers from a strained hamstring (though if the Cubs realized he was that important, they probably would have signed him before late February).
Will you actually play in the All-Star Game?
“That’s the plan,” said Fowler, who earned his first All-Star selection with a .398 on-base percentage. “We’ll see. I’m getting pretty close, definitely getting better. Use that as an extra rehab game.”
The Cubs hope to get healthy and find some reinforcements by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, but the biggest reasons for optimism in the second half will be all over Petco Park during next week’s All-Star festivities in San Diego.
“It means a lot,” Maddon said. “First of all, individually, what it does for your own personal self-esteem is very valuable. There’s a lot of fan acceptance, obviously. Within that, there’s some peer acceptance. Within the industry and within the game you’ve wanted to play since you’re a kid, you’re an All-Star, man. That’s pretty sweet stuff.
“Organizationally, it just speaks to what’s been done here the last several years. (And) I take zero credit for that. It’s just great scouting and development on the part of the Cubs, great leadership in the front office and ownership, because, really, you’re not successful unless you have all of that in place. It just doesn’t happen.
“No sports group’s going to be successful without tremendous leadership at the top. It filters down to the field. And then you got a bunch of guys that are skillful, accountable, authentic human beings. Everybody that made this team is very deserving.”
Or, as Lackey said in the middle of a season that will ultimately be judged on whether or not he gets a third World Series ring: “Good for them.”