So the Cubs just earned a playoff berth. So they’re closing in on a division title in a 60-game season.
More specifically, then what?
This is a team that has shown, especially lately, that it might have enough pitching to compete deep into October.
But as first baseman Anthony Rizzo pointed out Tuesday after clinching a fifth playoff berth in six years, “We’re obviously not in stride like we want to be offensively.”
“A lot of credit to us for not being in sync for pretty much the whole year and grinding through and getting wins,” he added.
How they do that in the postseason, especially against some of the better pitching they’ll face, could be the make-or-break question of October for this team.
During a pandemic season in which offensive production is down generally around the majors, the Cubs have been impacted as much as any team entering the postseason.
For what it’s worth in a small-sample season, they broke a dubious franchise record for worst home season batting average (.210) by 27 points (with a .669 OPS), and entering play Wednesday were hitting just .199 against left-handers anywhere (.627 OPS) — and that last number is only that good because of those four straight hits against Josh Hader in that astounding ninth-inning comeback Sept. 12.
More significant is a recent trend that included 17 straight scoreless innings before the Hader rally, a shutout loss two nights before that, and stunning lack of slugging from anybody over the past week.
On Wednesday night they faced the pitcher, Trevor Williams, with the worst ERA in the league, who has allowed the most homers in the majors, and lost 2-1.
Manager David Ross said he agreed with Rizzo and said “it speaks to the totality of the group” that they're in the playoffs — that the starting rotation has performed well enough and the bullpen settled in after a rough start.
“And then the hitters finding ways to win is just as important as your numbers, and these guys have found a way to win when things haven’t been pretty,” Ross said.
The Hader rally was as clutch as it was stunning. And Ross mentioned Javy Báez’s run-scoring, two-out bunt hit to start the scoring in Monday’s victory in Pittsburgh.
But the Cubs’ only scoring since then against a last-place Pirates team had lost 13 of 14 through Monday has come on an eighth-inning homer by Rizzo on Tuesday and first-inning shot by Rizzo Wednesday.
“We can definitely do a better job of just having professional at-bats,” said Cubs outfielder Cameron Maybin, a veteran of five postseason series, who doubled twice in Wednesday’s loss. “We’ve got to keep good energy and not get down on ourselves right now. I think everyone in that locker room knows they can swing it better, and they expect to.
“Things can turn in the blink of an eye.”
Rizzo's homers the last two nights are the only homers for the Cubs’ reputedly powerful lineup in the last seven games — since Báez’s second-inning homer off Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco on Sept. 15.
The Cubs lost to the Pirates the last two nights, 3-2 and 2-1 — two of their four losses in the last five games overall.
“I can’t really explain the lack of power,” Ross said, suggesting it’s about having better at-bats again — and pointed out the the randomness of a strange 2020 season.
“There’s not really a lot to explain in this whole season,” he said. “It’s unique in so many ways. We’re all getting through it the best we can, and I think we’ve done a really nice job of that.”
Meanwhile, the perpetually optimistic Ross makes lineup tweaks — including on Wednesday putting struggling Báez in the seventh spot for the second time in four games. And he envisions a return to health and production of Kris Bryant (oblique).
And tries to keep in mind what he’s seen from most of his core players since he spent two seasons as their teammate during 2015 and ’16 playoff seasons.
“If I know anything about this group,” he said, “when the lights shine the brightest, a lot of these guys have been there and stepped up and risen to the occasion.
“So maybe the stage does it.”