For all the talk about rookies hitting the wall — and how a young and inexperienced group will handle pennant-race pressure — the biggest issue facing the Cubs might be the rotation that put them in a playoff position.
Forget Jon Lester’s yips for a moment and his control-alt-delete performance in Wednesday night’s 15-8 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field. It happens, even to a $155 million pitcher with two World Series rings and three All-Star selections on his resume.
The Tigers knocked out Lester in the third inning, blasting three home runs and jumping out to a 7-0 lead. The issues are bigger than Lester when outfielder Chris Denorfia is pitching in the ninth inning of a two-game interleague series sweep that saw Detroit generate 25 runs and 40 hits.
Take a wide-angle look, and there’s Jason Hammel admitting he’s been out of sync after a hamstring injury, failing to finish six innings in seven starts since the Fourth of July.
There’s Kyle Hendricks watching old Double-A video, trying to diagnose the problems that have led to a 5.29 ERA in six starts after the All-Star break.
There’s Dan Haren in what are probably his final weeks before retirement, getting by with guts and intelligence near the end of a long and distinguished career.
“If there was health issues, I’d be more concerned,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s no health issues. That would be my greater concern, if it was something like: ‘My shoulder’s barking a bit.’
“During the course of a year, guys are always going to go through some struggles. I think Jason’s very fixable. I think Kyle’s very fixable. Danny Haren ... this guy is a tremendous competitor, so I have a lot of faith in him, too.”
The Cubs are on pace for around 90 wins and a wild-card spot because their rotation has been so reliable, beginning the day with a 3.51 ERA overall.
The Cubs will have to lean on their pitching infrastructure and come up with some answers, because they don’t have the stockpile of young arms that helped Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams win 90-plus games five times between 2008 and 2013.
“The only thing with Kyle — from my mouth to his ears — is to trust yourself and pitch to contact because that’s who you are,” Maddon said. “Let our defense play. I’ve always talked about him staying in better counts. I know when he stays in better counts and works his stuff off of that, he’s pretty effective.
“Hammer, he’s probably throwing the ball harder than he has in awhile. And I think that actually works against him. I think he needs to back off and make better pitches with less velocity, more effective velocity. When he does that, he’s going to be fine.
“Again, if they were injured, I’d be concerned. But they’re not.”
Even Jake Arrieta’s evolution into one of the game’s best pitchers comes with a warning label: The 29-year-old power right-hander has already reached a career-high 162 innings, and there are still six-plus weeks left in the regular season.
“You try to monitor it, but the guy’s like such a freak when it comes to working out and strength levels,” Maddon said. “I watch it all the time. (But) with him, he’s a little bit older (and) he’s been around, so I don’t have as great of a concern with him. But (we) definitely want to keep an eye on it.”