If any part of this historically short baseball season felt like it took a long time, it had to be the Cubs’ just-concluded, three-city, 10-game, 11-day road trip.
“Where did we even start?” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said when asked to assess the 5-5 trip.
That would be Detroit.
“Detroit? I don’t even know what we did there, to be honest with you,” Schwarber said. “It was a crazy trip.”
The Cubs salvaged the break-even trip with a series win in Pittsburgh, despite a 6-2 loss Thursday.
The good news for the Cubs: They open their final 23-game sprint with a 3 1/2-game lead over the second-place Cardinals as they open a five-game, four-day series against the Cardinals Friday at Wrigley Field.
The not-so-good news: They put two veteran starting pitchers on the injured list in recent days, will be down to their seventh and eighth starter choices for both ends of Saturday’s doubleheader and just watched their MVP of the season so far — Ian Happ — leave Thursday’s game after fouling a pitch off his face near his right eye.
“Scary,” teammate Anthony Rizzo said of the fluke play that resulted in a bad bruise (x-rays negative) when the fouled-off pitch bounced straight up from the plate into Happ’s face.
Looking ahead at the Cards series and the three weeks left in the season after that, here’s three up, three down to keep your eye on:
1. Happ seems to have escaped serious injury, “seems to be in good spirits,” Rizzo said after the game, and might be back in the lineup by Friday night, depending on how it reacts overnight.
Big deal? Huge deal. Happ, who hasn’t missed a game this season, is an early MVP candidate, who doubled again Thursday in two at-bats as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter. He’s hitting .311 with a .421 on-base percentage, 20 extra-base hits and a 1.068 OPS.
“A scary moment right there, where you think you might lose him, ” Schwarber said. “But it sounds like it’s good news. Hopefully, he can make his way back in there by [Friday]. If not, we want him to be healthy because we’re going to need this guy.”
2. How Yu doin’? Exceptionally well.
And that might be the only reason bigger than Happ to think the Cubs are in the driver’s seat in the division the rest of the way — with a chance to win in October. Manager David Ross calls it “Win Day” when Darvish pitches, and as he takes the mound Friday against Cards righty Jack Flaherty, he’s the league’s Cy Young favorite with a 6-1 record, 1.47 ERA, 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings and a six-start winning streak.
“He’s a stud,” Ross said.
The rest of the rotation this season: 11-10, 4.74 ERA and 7.1 K/9.
3. Put the suitcases away. The Cubs have only two one-city trips out of town the rest of the way: Sept. 11-13 to Milwaukee and Sept. 21-24 to Pittsburgh.
That’s an advantage under any circumstances, but in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it puts the Cubs at a major health advantage down the stretch — assuming they avoided exposure again during the recent trip.
1. Happ and Jason Heyward (hitting .300 with a .981 OPS) are the Cubs’ top hitters this season and might both receive MVP votes if they keep it up.
But the actual 2016 MVP and 2018 runner-up — Kris Bryant and Javy Báez — have been less consistent and productive. Bryant is 2-for-11 in two games since returning from a turn on the injured list because of wrist and finger injuries.
Báez, who opened the recent trip with a three-hit, two-homer game in Detroit and hit a big, three-run shot in Wednesday’s victory in Pittsburgh, still is hitting just .194 (.609 OPS) this season.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Báez, who feels “really” close. “I’m trying to do my best and help the team.”
2. Yu got anybody else? That’s the biggest challenge for this team the rest of the way: finding enough starting pitching with Tyler Chatwood (forearm) and José Quintana (lat) on the IL.
Since the rotation keyed the club’s 13-3 start (going 12-3 with a 2.55 ERA and 12 quality starts), the starters in the last 21 games have gone just 5-8 with a 5.42 ERA and six quality starts.
Take Darvish’s three starts out of that 21-game stretch, and it’s 2-6, 6.45 and just three QS in 18 games.
“Obviously, it’s huge. Those guys going down was a big hit to us,” said starter Alec Mills of the IL losses after his loss to the Pirates Thursday. “It puts a little bit more emphasis on me getting back to being consistent.”
3. Loaded question. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but the Cubs have an almost impossible aversion to producing with the bases loaded. When Jason Kipnis struck out, and Cameron Maybin flied to left in that situation Thursday, it made the Cubs just 8-for-43 (.186) with the bases loaded, with 16 strikeouts, two walks and one extra-base hit.
They have performed well overall with men on base, and they lead the National League in walks. But the most impressive stat might be that only one team in the majors has more plate appearances with the bases loaded than the Cubs (50).
As Ross recently said, “The guys getting the bases loaded, that’s a good thing.”