NEW YORK – This played out like an October rerun, the Cubs looking lost and overmatched against the New York Mets and trying to figure out what just happened.
This four-game sweep at Citi Field became another reality check for an anointed team, a giddy media corps and a fan base expecting a World Series parade down Michigan Avenue.
It ended with Sunday afternoon’s 14-3 blowout, a resurgent Mets lineup absolutely rocking Jon Lester while Noah Syndergaard unleashed 100-mph heat on Cubs hitters in a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series.
“We came in probably too excited about playing them again and getting revenge over what happened in the playoffs,” Miguel Montero said, “which I don’t think is a smart thing to do. You just got to play your game and forget. It’s already over.”
A showcase series between two big-market teams with star power devolved into Montero pitching in a 12-run game and getting the last four outs, because Lester could only get four outs at the start. Manager Joe Maddon likes to change the subject and play up the idea of esprit de corps when a veteran catcher pitches. But all jokes aside, Montero wasn’t quite feeling that spin.
“It’s terrible,” Montero said. “It’s just bad. They outplayed us, simple as that. We didn’t play good enough. We didn’t hit good enough. We didn’t pitch good enough. Overall, it was just a sloppy performance.”
The day after being named the NL pitcher of the month for June – during what’s been a terrific Year 2 (9-4, 2.67 ERA) of that $155 million megadeal – Lester walked off the mound in the second inning while a crowd of 36,137 stood and cheered.
“Guys have turned the page on last year,” said Lester, who faced 14 hitters and allowed nine hits, three homers, one walk and eight runs. “They’re swinging the bats really well right now, and they made us pay for our mistakes. I feel like they didn’t make a mistake the whole series. Sometimes, you run into a buzz saw like that.”
Yes, the Cubs reached the halfway point of their schedule with a 51-30 record, an eight-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals, maybe seven All-Stars who will get all-expenses paid trips to San Diego and a creative front office that can make changes at the trade deadline.
That 25-6 start wasn’t a total mirage. The Cubs have playoff-tested veterans, premium young talent and a manager who knows what he’s doing. No one will be surprised when this lineup creates fireworks on the Fourth of July at Wrigley Field against the Cincinnati Reds and their Triple-A pitchers.
[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]
But you also can’t ignore how the Cubs have played against teams trying to win now, losing series to the Washington Nationals, Cardinals, Miami Marlins and Mets since the middle of June.
“It’s not a matter of anybody in this clubhouse panicking by any means,” Lester said. “Let’s be honest, we weren’t going to be on that pace (for) the entire season. It’s 162 games. It’s a long year. There’s a lot of things that can happen. You guys are seeing them now.”
This can’t all be explained away by injuries, youthful mistakes and the natural ebb and flow of the season. The Cubs threw almost $290 million at their problems after an NLCS sweep where they never led at any point – and the Mets (44-37) again exposed some of those fundamental issues that haven’t completely gone away with the arrival of big-name free agents.
The Cubs went 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position during the first three games in Queens, struck out 44 times overall against New York’s high-octane pitching staff, allowed 22 hits on getaway day and got outscored by a 32-11 aggregate.
Good luck against Syndergaard, a 6-foot-6 beast with triple-digit velocity and pinpoint control. “Thor” didn’t seem bothered by that bone spur in his right elbow, allowing one run across seven low-stress innings and finishing with eight strikeouts against zero walks.
If Jake Arrieta loses that intimidation factor – and starts to look more like a pretty good pitcher rather than an ace – then the Cubs can shred their World Series blueprint.
But 81 games in, and with New York in their heads, all the Cubs can do is write this off, remembering how much it meant to beat the Mets seven times during the first half of last season.
“When you get two evenly matched teams, a lot of it has to do with what’s going on dynamically with the group at that particular moment,” Maddon said. “At the end of a pretty rugged road trip with a lot of banged-up guys, it happens. I don’t think you try to overanalyze it. You just move on to the next day and understand that our next really good run’s right around the corner.”