PITTSBURGH — What’s wrong with Jon Lester? That suddenly becoming a question shows how much you have to reevaluate all those assumptions about the Cubs, from the Las Vegas odds to the magazine covers to the business side lobbying City Hall to make sure the Wrigley Field plaza would be up and running and selling alcohol in time for the postseason.
Playoffs? The Cubs will make it to the All-Star break as a first-place team, but one that looks like it needs to get away from everything rather than a group that’s primed for October.
The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t going away, cutting their deficit to 6 1/2 games in the National League Central after Saturday’s 12-6 blowout at PNC Park. And the St. Louis Cardinals are still lurking, now only seven games out in the division, making this a three-team race again after last year’s 100-, 98-, 97-win finishes.
The night after Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta found beneath-the-surface positives in an 8-4 loss, Lester — coming off the shortest start in his 11-year career — lasted only three innings and gave up five runs against a surging Pirates team that had been 15 games out on June 19.
“Terrible,” Lester said. “I don’t know why if you pitch bad it’s got to be a physical reason. Just like hitters, you go through slumps, and you got to figure out ways to contribute. The last two starts were obviously null and void.
Lester — the NL pitcher of the month for June — has given up 13 runs and accounted for only 4 1/3 innings in two July starts combined. Arrieta has a 4.81 ERA since the beginning of June, showing signs of the mechanical issues and control problems that stalled his career with the Baltimore Orioles.
If the Cubs can’t rely on those two All Stars in the second half, then it doesn’t really matter who comes off the disabled list or what Theo Epstein’s front office does at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
The rotation that fueled a 25-6 launch hasn’t powered through a quality start since June 30. The Cubs have become a 27-29 team across a two-month sample size, losing five games in a row, nine of their last 10 and 15 of their last 20.
“It seems like right now every time we make a mistake, it’s hit hard,” Lester said. “It seemed like early on, we couldn’t do anything wrong. I’ll be the first one to tell you — what we were doing (then) was pretty impressive. But just like with (the) pace we were on — 120 (wins) or whatever — we all knew that was not realistic.
“At the same time, we got to be better as a staff. We got to be better as a whole. And that starts with me tonight — I got to be better.”
Manager Joe Maddon said there are no physical issues with his pitchers, pointing out how his 2008 Tampa Bay Rays team lost seven games in a row before the All-Star break and made it to the World Series.
“We’ve hit a little bit of a snag,” Maddon said. “There’s no question. My bigger concern would be if people were actually injured, but they’re not. They’re not injured. They’re well.
“I really anticipate they’re going to be fine. They’re going to get back to where they had been. It happens. I’ve seen it happen before. It’s just a moment that we’re going through.”
But what if injuries begin to shred this pitching staff? This is a bad trade market to be looking for starters, and there are no elite pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.
Sixth man Adam Warren — who looked sharp in a spot start while throwing 93 pitches against the Cincinnati Reds three days earlier — let this game get out of hand in the fifth inning when Josh Bell and Jordy Mercer blasted back-to-back homers that set off fireworks.
Bell’s pinch-hit grand slam cleared the right-field deck, earning him a curtain call from a sellout crowd of 37,796 after his second at-bat in The Show. Maddon compared Bell’s stance to Eddie Murray and the 23-year-old slugger’s potential impact to Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs don’t have a monopoly on young talent — and shouldn’t keep the champagne from Binny’s on ice in the middle of July.
“This game isn’t easy,” said Anthony Rizzo, who went 4-for-5 and would have hit for the cycle if his second double hadn’t bounced off the left-field wall in the eighth inning. “It’s impossible to boat-race a whole season like we were doing. It’s impossible. We just got to kind of clean up our pitching a little bit.
“We’ve had the formula most of the season for playing good baseball. We don’t have it right now. We’ll mix maybe a few cocktails together and figure it back out.”