Now that the Cubs’ longest losing streak since they set the franchise record for tanking in 2012 is over, what’s next for this 43-44 team and its roster of short-timers?
If they’re like the 1954 Cubs, who also lost 11 in a row at midseason, they’ll lose another 10 in a row in August.
If they’re like the 1970 team, which also was in first place when its 12-game losing streak started, they’ll rally for a winning season but never see first place again.
That’s the cost of losing every game for almost two weeks, even in a long season — even when 76 games remain after ending the skid, like the Cubs did Wednesday night in an 8-3 win over the Phillies.
No Cubs team that has had a losing streak longer than seven games has ever made the playoffs. Only one that has lost at least 10 straight avoided a losing season.
And one — the 1985 defending division champs — had a 13-game losing streak that altered the competitive direction of its core and the career of its best pitcher.
“I remember that losing streak. You can’t help but remember,” said 1984 Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, who was sidelined with a bad hamstring injury for barely two weeks when he was pressed into an early return as pitching injuries mounted and the fast-starting Cubs fell a half-game back in the division in early June.
Sutcliffe won his first start back, pitched six innings in a 2-0 loss five days later as the streak began, and continued to pitch until the hamstring gave out again — along with a shoulder he damaged in the process of pitching hurt.
“I’m just telling you, the course of the Cubs and the course of my career changed on that hamstring,” he said.
For different reasons, this year’s 11-game, 12-day plunge from a share of first in the NL Central to nine games out also figures to have seismic results for what’s left of this defending division champion.
Talk about exit velocity.
Those results were probably predictable in the month it took the Cubs to non-tender Kyle Schwarber and salary-dump Yu Darvish in a trade to the Padres last winter — until the bats and bullpen got hot enough during a torrid May and good-enough start to June to have them in first place 75 games into the season.
Until they defied all odds to reach the brink of forcing ownership and the front office to add at the trade deadline.
No Darvish, no Schwarber, no problem for the upstarts on a mission to prove their own front office wrong?
Except for this: No room for error.
And, consequently, no time left. No chance for the Cinderella story.
As manager David Ross said before Wednesday’s streak-buster, “I think there’s a lot of things that could change if we don’t start winning.”
Only four games remain until the All-Star break, with only 14 more after that until the July 30 trade deadline.
Buyers already are circling overhead to pick the roster bones of this staggering, fading, rotation-weak team.
Closer Craig Kimbrel, setup man Andrew Chafin, starter Zach Davies and maybe even Kris Bryant or another championship-core player are all but assured of being picked off by contenders.
And they all know it.
“Everything that’s going to be written is going to be written, and you guys are going to ask the questions, and we’re probably just going to dodge them and avoid them and say it’s all rumors,” said the most tenured player on the roster, Anthony Rizzo, a pending free agent — along with Bryant and Javy Báez.
“But you definitely hear it,” Rizzo added. “Most of us in this clubhouse have been around long enough to know that you’ve just got to keep playing, and whatever happens, happens.”
Thirty-six years ago, Sutcliffe watched Dallas Green’s first core of contending Cubs felled by the weight of injuries to literally every member of their starting rotation at the same time and a wave of losses that followed.
By the time the following season played out, Shawon Dunston played his first full season as the Cubs’ everyday shortstop; Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro and Dave Martinez made big-league debuts; and Sutcliffe was a few months away from reinventing himself into a breaking-ball pitcher who would average 16 wins over the next three seasons, make two All-Star selections and play a leading role in the Cubs’ new-look, next playoff team in 1989.
What might have been in 1985 without all those injuries and that losing streak and with Sutcliffe’s career if he hadn’t felt compelled to come back in 17 days from what he was told was a 6-to-8-week injury?
And what might have been this month if the Cubs had found a way to go just, say, 6-5 during that lost 11-game stretch — and been 10 games over .500 and maybe two games out of first by the time they got to Wednesday?
“You don’t ever expect any team at the big-league level [to have such a long losing streak]. This doesn’t happen very often,” Sutcliffe said.
“There’s a track record with Rizzo and Bryant and Javy,” he said, asserting Báez and Rizzo will get hot enough at some point to have their usual middle-of-the-order numbers by the end of the year.
“Those were things 10 days ago that we were all excited about, because you knew that it was going to get better,” he said. “But I don’t know …”
Sutcliffe suddenly shifted to a wider-angle view as he spoke the day before the streak ended.
“I’m at Wrigley Field right now,” he said. “The ballpark’s going to be full again. There’s still a lot of excitement in me right now to be here and hopefully watch the team pull out of it and get back on track.”
They did finally get their win. And maybe they’ll even get another one before the Phillies leave town.
And then, well, that’s when “whatever happens, happens.”