Cubs Insider

Cubs say NL Central title ‘doesn’t matter’ as swagger, lead wane

Cubs Insider
Lester has a 9.26 ERA in his last five starts with eight homers allowed after lasting just 3 1/3 innings in Sunday's loss to the Cardinals.
USA Today

Seattle doesn’t have many legendary baseball stories or moments. But one that every Mariners fan and employee of a certain age knows by heart was the day in August 1995 that outfielder Jay Buhner spotted an intern hours before the game arranging team pennants across an upper-deck facade of the Kingdome in the order of the standings that day.

Buhner became enraged when he noticed that for the first time the club decided to display the wild-card standings instead of the AL West standings.

“Take that f***ing banner down!” he told the kid, adding that if the front office had a problem with what Buhner said they could see Buhner about it.

When the suits did, Buhner recalled years later in a Seattle Times interview, he told them: “I don’t think we should be setting our sights on the wild card. Let’s not settle for second best.”

The Mariners came from 12 1/2 games behind the Angels on Aug. 20 to finish in a tie for the division title and then beat the Angels behind Cy Young winner Randy Johnson in the tiebreaker.

Buhner’s sentiments were seen as inspiring for the team as they were unique for the moment — that being the first postseason of the wild-card era.

But they’ve been expressed by players and managers countless times since, as recently as the last two seasons by the Cubs.

That’s why it stood out as sorely and conspicuously as it did Sunday when Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo and manager David Ross downplayed the significance of holding on to their dwindling lead in the NL Central down the stretch.

 

Whether that’s simply a sign of the times during a pandemic-shortened season with expanded playoffs, an acknowledgment of the team’s increasingly exposed flaws or some combination of the two, it’s not exactly inspiring in a Buhner-esque — or any other — way.

“It’s better to be in first than second, for sure,” Ross said. “The way I approach this season is we’ve just got to get better each and every day. If we can take that mindset, it doesn’t really matter to me that you win the division right now in this playoff format or you come in second. You get into the playoffs and try to be the best version of yourself to win the World Series.”

He’s not wrong — especially that part about first place being a good thing. And the expanded playoffs significantly reduce the early-October advantages for any team, with the first round of a 16-team tournament involving a best-of-three, single-site series.

“It doesn’t matter at all,” Rizzo said of winning the division vs. entering as a wild card.

Not entirely.

But at this point, maybe it’s better for them that they think that way, considering the Cardinals just turned their 4 1/2-game lead into a 1 1/2-game lead in two days by sweeping Saturday’s doubleheader and beating the Cubs again 7-3 Sunday night with the series finale coming Monday.

As much as the merits of their arguments can be debated, it’s a far cry from the tone Ross set at the start of summer training camp when he declared, “If they’re passing out a trophy, I want it.”

That was in the context of what a World Series championship would mean in a shortened season, and that feeling obviously hasn’t changed.

But the vim, vigor and sheer volume of swagger this team rode through three-week ramp-up, Kyle Hendricks’ spectacular opening performance and a 13-3 start has dimmed significantly in recent weeks to something closer to a mutter in the face of starting pitching injuries, ongoing questions in the bullpen and prolonged slumps by important hitters (at least relative to the length of the season).

“The goal is to continue to play championship-caliber baseball every day, and I think that’s what we haven’t really done lately,” said Ross, whose team has lost four of its last five and gone 10-15 since making history with its 16-game start.

“You’ve seen spurts of it,” Ross said. “But the consistency hasn’t been there. Obviously it has to do with some injuries on the pitching staff, and obviously it has to do with we can get better in the bullpen and we can get better on the bases, and we can get better on defense, and we’ve got to hit better. There’s so many things that we have to improve on.”

 

Not a lot of Knute Rockne in there.

But definitely some brutal honesty.

So where’s the improvement going to come from?

The Cubs can reasonably expect Kris Bryant to hit better than .188 and Javy Báez better than .191 the rest of the way.

But if 36-year-old Jon Lester continues to be the pitcher we’ve seen the last five starts (9.26 ERA, eight homers, 1.093 OPS against) — compared to the first three (1.06 ERA, one homer) — then the Cubs are down to Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks for a reliable playoff rotation.

MORE: Cubs rotation status: Yu and Kyle and pray for a while

Lester faced 19 batters Sunday and didn't get past the first out of the fourth.

Which makes the focus of next three weeks best spent on getting José Quintana’s lat back to full strength and a desperate search for the ignition switch to their lineup.

“My message is to continue to come to work every day and try to get better,” Ross said. “The standings are what they are.”

And probably not for long at this rate.

“We set ourselves up to be in that situation and the great start and the way these guys worked in the down time,” Ross said. “We’ve just got to continue to keep the mindset of trying to be the best version that we can be as we enter the postseason.”

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