The Cubs still only have first-division problems. This isn’t the San Francisco Giants scrambling after Madison Bumgarner’s dirt-bike accident or the New York Mets letting Noah Syndergaard blow off an MRI or the Texas Rangers shutting down Cole Hamels for two months with a strained oblique muscle.
The Cubs haven’t dealt with that kind of rotation crisis through 200 wins across the last two seasons, six playoff rounds, a World Series title and an uneven April. As much as the Cubs built their franchise around Bryzzo Souvenir Co. and other young hitters, the foundation to that success has been an elite pitching-and-defense unit.
This certainly didn’t look or feel like the Cubs operating at peak efficiency, but Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta have now won back-to-back games at Wrigley Field after Wednesday night’s 5-4 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. Ultimately, that’s how a 15-12 first-place team will create some separation in the National League Central.
“Collectively, I don’t think we’re throwing the ball as well as we would like,” Arrieta said. “Sometimes, that’s just the game of baseball kind of rearing its head and letting you know that anything is possible in this game. Once you think you have it figured out, you kind of get bit in the ass.
“It’s a good sign we’re at where we are without throwing the ball as crisp as we’re capable of as a staff. But we’re all confident that things will change for the positive. Everybody’s grinding. Everybody’s working hard and trying to get their A-stuff to show up every night.”
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Whether or not all those extra innings and high-stress situations catch up to the Cubs at some point, manager Joe Maddon doesn’t see the point in worrying about it now, believing in a rotation that began the day with a 4.66 ERA that ranked 26th in the majors and now has only 10 quality starts through 27 games.
“To actually keep our head above water while it’s not happening, I kind of like it, because I know it’s going to happen,” Maddon said. “Our guys are good. They’re well. They’re going to continue to pitch better.
“For us to be in the position that we’re in right now while they’re not at the top of their game, I kind of like it, actually, because they’re going to be there. They’re going to pitch very similar to what you’ve seen the last couple years. I really 100 percent believe that.”
Arrieta (4-1, 4.63 ERA) recovered after the Phillies jumped out to a 2-0 lead, continuing a trend where the Cubs have now allowed 35 runs in the first inning this season. Maybe the three runs Arrieta allowed across six innings could be written off in part by Ben Zobrist — one of the steadiest, most versatile defenders of his generation — not finishing the great plays Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward might have made in right field. Arrieta focused on the four innings where he needed 12 pitches or less to handle the Phillies (12-14).
The rotation is where the Cubs are most vulnerable as an organization, from the gaps in the farm system to Arrieta and John Lackey (38 years old) positioned to become free agents after this season to Brett Anderson’s thick medical file to all the wear and tear from back-to-back playoff runs.
“But it’s not just them,” Maddon said. “The defense has been not as sharp as it can be. (And) for the most part, our whole game, I believe, is going to continue to trend north. So I’m not really concerned right now.”