The Cardinals’ doubleheader sweep of the Cubs on Saturday exposed two very inconvenient truths to the Cubs as they face the final 20 games in this pandemic-shortened season:
First, the Cardinals have quality pitching depth.
Second — and far more important — the Cubs don’t.
As well as grizzled Cards veteran Adam Wainwright pitched to beat the Cubs 4-2 in the opener, the Cardinals’ bullpen pitched even better — six relievers combining to limit the Cubs to one run on three hits with nine strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings.
The Cubs weren’t going to win much with three total runs for the day — only one that wasn’t produced by a homer from MVP candidate Ian Happ. And Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant getting the nightcap off didn’t help the cause in what turned into a 5-1 loss.
But the bigger picture for a division-leading team whose lead shrunk to 2 1/2 games with three weeks to play involves whether the Cubs have enough pitching to close out the division — much less win anything in October.
Just how top-heavy the Cubs’ pitching staff is — as in one guy at the top and everybody else — was on full display from Yu Darvish’s gem on Friday to Saturday’s grab bag of Cubs hopes and bullpen dreams.
Prospect Adbert Alzolay, who looked so promising in an earlier spot start, was not sharp in Saturday’s opener, and while reliever Colin Rea did well to get into the third in the nightcap he didn’t get much further and took the loss.
Take Cy Young candidate Darvish (7-1, 1.44 ERA) out of the mix, and the rest of the Cubs’ rotation is now 11-12 with a 4.95 ERA this season — and with no fifth starter in sight for now.
Prospect Tyson Miller’s three innings of relief in the nightcap gave the Cubs something to at least think about as they monitor the progress of injured veteran José Quintana’s lat this week and consider whether Alzolay is next in line for that spot in the rotation when it comes up again Thursday against the Reds.
“We’ve still got to find out what’s going on with Q and go from there,” manager David Ross said after the rough night at Wrigley.
Even if Quintana is able to somehow return to the mound by then, he’s not close to being stretched out for a typical start, which means more grab-bag time from the bullpen.
How Jon Lester looks Sunday might tell some of the story of how the Cubs figure to hold on in the division. And Opening Day starter Kyle Hendricks pitches Monday’s final game of the season series against the Cardinals.
But the Cubs have sizable holes and a lot of questions with this pitching staff that need answers fast.
“Those are critical games," rookie Nico Hoerner said of the Cards series, "but I think we’ve approached all the games pretty similarly and that’s put us in first place to this point."
But consider the second-place Cardinals’ position as a team that missed two weeks of games early because of their COVID-19 outbreak:
They still trail the Cubs by 2 1/2 games. But they’re two games ahead in the loss column with all those games left to make up.
Then consider the kind of depth the Cubs showed Saturday, the dice rolls that five-time All-Star Lester in the rotation and seven-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel at the back of the bullpen have become this year, the injuries to Tyler Chatwood (forearm) and Quintana, the swings and misses on low-risk fliers on once-prominent relievers Cody Allen, AJ Ramos and Kelvin Herrera, and the scant lead with 20 to play.
All of which leaves the Cubs with Darvish. And Kyle. And pray for a while.