A lopsided score between the first- and last-place teams in the National League Central might have been expected.
But in the series finale between the Cubs and Pirates on Thursday, it was hard to tell which team was in first and which in last. The Cubs lost 7-0 at Pittsburgh, sliding to a three-game losing streak against the Pirates (18-30).
“These are games and teams that we should be beating,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “You don't have to sugarcoat it; we know that. We know we were the better team, but we certainly didn't play it like that this series.”
On paper, that series had been a promising opportunity for the Cubs (32-25) to claim the division. Instead, they finished their penultimate series of the regular season with a 3.5-game lead on the second-place Cardinals (27-26) and Reds (29-28). St. Louis faces Milwaukee Thursday evening, with a chance to close that gap even more.
Just three games remain on the Cubs’ schedule, a Crosstown Series rife with playoff implications. Both Chicago teams are in the fight to win their respective divisions.
“We didn't have a real good series here against Pittsburgh,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “But that can't affect tomorrow. We have to come tomorrow with our lunch pail and go to work. And I think this group has done a good job of doing that every day.”
Thursday’s loss was one Ross said his team has to “flush.”
Starting pitcher Alec Mills dubbed it his “worst outing of the year,” after allowing four runs on eight hits in 3 2/3 innings. But that shouldn't be the Cubs' biggest concern as they return from Pittsburgh.
Mills has bounced back from a similar low point earlier in the season, his rebound culminating in a no-hitter. And if Ross pegs Jon Lester as his No. 3 playoff starter, the Cubs would have to advance to the NLDS for Mills to get a postseason start.
The right-hander said he hasn’t talked with Ross about his role in the Cubs’ first-round series.
“I think what Yu (Darvish) and Kyle (Hendricks) have done this year,” Mills continued, “and then what Jon has done the playoffs -- for the three-game set, I'll be ready to do anything.”
The more concerning trend for the Cubs is its offense. On Thursday, the Cubs were shut out for the second time in five days and scored fewer than two runs for the fifth time in seven days.
It wasn’t a game that could be chalked up to the pitching matchup either. Pirates starter Chad Kuhl (2-3, 4.27 ERA) entered Thursday’s game with a 9.42 ERA this month.
Against the Cubs, he had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning, until finally Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo hit a double off the wall. That, and a double by Kipnis, were the Cubs’ only hits of the night.
“You try to just keep the focus on the postseason,” Kipnis said. “You try not to get down on the day-to-day grind. Because that's not where you want to be mentally. You just keep that hope that, 'Hey, we've got three more games to turn this around.'”
The Cubs will at least miss the White Sox’s best starting pitchers, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, this weekend.
“You’ve got to use these next few days wisely,” Kipnis said. “They may go bad, but as long as you get something out of it, that will help you when the postseason starts.”