It was nice while it lasted.
The feel-good story of the summer in baseball this season lasted until — *checks calendar* — the ninth day of summer before fall came early for the Cubs.
Make that free fall.
A 2-1 loss to Brandon Woodruff and the Brewers bullpen Tuesday was the Cubs fifth in a row — dropping them from a first-place tie in the National League Central to five games behind the first-place Brewers in five days flat.
Emphasis on flat.
By the time they reached the media Zoom room after their 11th loss in 15 games — their worst 15-game stretch of the season — they couldn’t even agree on what they’re watching.
Manager David Ross: “We’re not playing bad baseball. We’re just a little short right now.”
Left fielder Joc Pederson: “We’re not playing great baseball right now. … It’s pretty frustrating.”
Neither is actually wrong.
But since the only thing that matters is whether they win, we’ll give the postgame clarity award to four-inning starter Zach Davies:
“We still have quite a while until the trade deadline, and that’s typically when teams make decisions on where their season’s going to go.”
The Cubs reach the halfway mark of their season after Wednesday’s series finale against the Brewers, and a loss drops them to, well, let Ross sum up how far back of the Brewers that would put them:
“That’s a big number,” he said.
Bigger yet, considering a 10-game road trip picks up again Friday in Cincinnati against the Reds, who are 17-11 since the Cubs beat them twice in late May.
And even bigger, still, considering that the Cubs haven’t gotten productive innings from their starting rotation consistently all season, that they continue to have regulars drop from the lineup like flies — Kris Bryant (side) joining Anthony Rizzo (back) on the day-to-day injury list Tuesday — and that it’s very difficult to overtake a team in the standings that you cannot beat.
The Cubs are 3-8 against the Brewers this season.
Wait, there’s more.
When Ross talks about playing well even in some of the losses, again, he’s not wrong. But when he cites the fact the Cubs were tied in the eighth inning of three of the losses during the five-game skid, he conspicuously leaves out what that suggests about a bullpen that was the best in the majors until then and that has been the only thing keeping them out of the NL Central crapper.
One of their setup aces, Ryan Tepera (calf), went on the injured list Tuesday after giving up four runs in the eighth Monday in Milwaukee and a decisive two-run homer Friday in Los Angeles.
It’s certainly true that the Cubs have faced a stretch of contenders and pitching strength in June like they won’t see the rest of the season, and that have been playing short-handed because of a slew of injuries.
“But I think pretty much every team’s going through that,” Davies said.
Which brings us back to the original point made by Davies the truth teller.
The trade deadline looms exactly one month from Wednesday. And in the span of five days the numbers and the eye test alike have swung the Cubs from an all-but-certain buyer at the deadline to fence-sitters at best heading into July.
Is Nico Hoerner’s return really going to be enough — twice in one season — to rescue a struggling lineup? Is Adbert Alzolay going to pitch well enough again, soon enough, to stabilize the rotation? Is getting past the June gauntlet really going to make a significant difference?
And what about that bullpen — especially if Craig Kimbrel keeps up the dominant season he’s been having and contenders start lining up with drool-worthy prospects in hand by July 30?
“The key is for us to represent a winning product and someone that can win a division and go into the playoffs and do something special,” Ross said of the daily aspiration.
“You can paint the picture in a lot of different ways, but you can look at it as, ‘Do we have what it takes to win’?” he said. “From my standpoint, I would definitely push that, yeah, we’ve got a good chance to so something special this season.”
That means getting injured guys back, pitching better and hitting better, he added.
“But in the totality,” he said, “I don’t think this series defines our season.”
Yeah, maybe. But what does Davies say?
“That’s for the front office to decide.”