ST. LOUIS – Edwin Jackson is the easy target.
The $52 million reliever entered a tie game in the sixth inning and walked off the mound with the Cubs trailing 6-4 and the bases loaded. It became very quiet at Busch Stadium on Tuesday night. You could only imagine the boos if this happened at Wrigley Field.
This 7-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals magnified the issues surrounding a team trying to get to the next level. It’s not just Jackson. It’s The Cardinal Way, a wobbly rotation and an overexposed bullpen.
Kyle Hendricks exceeded all expectations when he got called up from Triple-A Iowa last season, filling the void after another summer sell-off and impressing everyone with his poise, intelligence and bottom-line results (7-2, 2.46 ERA in 13 starts).
Whether it’s the sophomore jinx, a confidence issue or something else, Hendricks hasn’t looked like the same guy in 2015. His pinpoint control is missing. He walked two Cardinals, hit another and doesn’t have that much margin for error. He lasted only five innings and couldn’t maintain any sense of momentum.
[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
“The feel is just not there,” Hendricks said afterward, standing in front of his locker and looking a little dazed. “You got to change something up and find it. Got to get out of it somehow.”
Minutes after the Cubs built up a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning, Hendricks surrendered a three-run homer to Matt Carpenter. That left the game in the hands of middle relievers, an area the Cubs targeted with a series of roster moves before Tuesday’s game.
The Cubs noticed how the Kansas City Royals rode a lockdown bullpen to the World Series last season and hoped they could use a similar blueprint with all those power arms and manager Joe Maddon pushing all the right buttons.
Injuries to Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez changed the equation, leaving the Cubs (13-12) in scramble mode, already trailing the Cardinals (20-6) by 6.5 games in the division.
“We’re not pitching to our capabilities,” Maddon said. “We were kind of beat up a little bit with some of our guys who are not here, which probably would have made a huge difference by now. But that happens to everybody, not just us. So you have to fight through and other guys have to pick up the slack. We just haven’t done that.
“You look at what we’ve done this year. We’re still over .500. We’d be at least in pretty good shape right now if we had done a better job handling the middle part of the ballgame. We’re missing two really nice pitchers in Ramirez and Grimm. The other guys, we just have to give them the ball and just get that moment done. It’s pretty obvious…we have to keep leads.”
Hendricks is now winless through five starts – none lasting longer than six innings – and stuck with a 5.61 ERA. General manager Jed Hoyer gave Hendricks a vote of confidence before the game and it didn’t sound like the Cubs had any immediate plans to shake up their rotation after restructuring their bullpen.
“We’re not worried about him at all,” Hoyer said. “He’s a feel pitcher. As he gets on the mound more often, and gets his feel down, he has so many ways to get you out. I think he’ll be just fine.”
Maddon wasn’t around for Hendricks’ breakout rookie season. But the Cubs aren’t holding auditions now and won’t have the same player-development leash this season.
“I have a lot of faith in this guy,” Maddon said. “We’re talking about the fact that the ball doesn’t have that typical sink, because he really reads as a heavy groundball pitcher and you’re not seeing that right now. That tells you the pitch is more flat than down. That’s the primary (issue). In conjunction with that, (there are) a lot of deep counts, getting behind in the count and permitting the hitters to have better at-bats.”
You wonder if that feel could be found in Des Moines and how soon someone like Tsuyoshi Wada could get a shot at the rotation. Given Hendricks’ struggles, could we see a change in the rotation next time around?
“No,” Maddon said. “I believe in the guy.”
It’s up to $155 million ace Jon Lester to stop a four-game losing streak on Wednesday night against the best team in baseball.