To paraphrase Ron Burgundy: “Boy, that really tightened up quickly.” Although the Cubs still enjoy a one-game lead in the division and have more padding in the Wild Card, Saturday’s doubleheader sweep and Monday’s loss to the Brewers reminded us we are knee-deep in September baseball.
That means any losing streak — or every single loss, really — stimulates an almost hypothalamic unease among fans. I’m talking the old fight-or-flight instinct. Some bite their nails and nervously text friends. Others rage via hashtag about umpires, pitching changes, or when an infielder brain farts and forgets to throw home in a tie game.
Welcome to stretch-run baseball.
Still, let’s remind ourselves that we’ve weathered these insecurities before. As recently as May, when the Cubs were mired in fourth place in the NL Central, I offered this survival guide. So now’s an opportune time to review these tips and add one new one to fortify our sanity for a possible roller-coaster September.
1) The Cubs aren’t a “super team”
This point was largely meant as an expectation-setter and doesn’t mean the Cubs are a bad team. While the they won’t win 100-plus games like the so-called AL “super teams,” the Cubs remain well-positioned for the postseason. Still, fans should expect bumpy stretches – such as that Saturday sweep.
But while the Cubs have been a good-but-not-great regular season team, it’s worth noting the good fortune of their NL competition. Injuries and poor chemistry did in the Nationals. The Dodgers have combined the World Series hangover the Cubs struggled with in 2017 with a mirror-image of the Cubs’ 2018 major injuries. Los Angeles may prevail in the NL West, but it’s been a woolly ride for them.
Out east, Atlanta and Philadelphia are basically impersonating the 2015 Cubs: Eager to gain experience with a young, talented core but probably not ready for prime time. In the NL Central, the Cardinals appear to have realized too late their mistake in sticking with an aging formula, while the Brewers are definitely hanging in there despite playing .500 ball in August.
So you like the hand the Cubs have been dealt at this point. That said, they must still get some key players back from the DL and close the regular season deal while finding opportunities to rest Willson Contreras, their playoff rotation, and key relievers for the playoffs. So expect the nail-biting to continue.
2) This Cubs lineup is still young
This tip meant for us to expect streakiness from our young offensive core. Javier Baez has largely graduated from the “still maturing” category. However, Albert Almora Jr., Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Contreras, Addison Russell, Tommy La Stella, David Bote, and Victor Caratini remain young players searching for the consistency and/or physical health needed to make their next steps.
Collectively, they remain very solid major leaguers. I don’t yet see a frustrating Billy Hamilton or Byron Buxton-type among them. To Joe Maddon’s credit, he’s avoided grooming too many to expect full-time starts, which keeps them hungry for playing time and to perform in the spots Maddon gives them. Thus he can play the hot hands while also leveraging specific skills, such as Russell on defense, La Stella pinch-hitting, and Almora against power arms.
Returning to Baez, all that’s left for him is proving he can maintain his performance throughout the playoffs. As a full-time starter, he’s had two marvelous playoff series and three poor ones. This October could be his biggest challenge yet, but Baez has risen to most challenges this season. So let others make the fool’s wager.
3) The starting rotation should get better, the bullpen worse
Interestingly, this one took much longer on both ends to come true. Yu Darvish never returned and the team banished Tyler Chatwood to the riverboat casino part of the bullpen where his wild-card pitches are limited to just once a week. But the rest of the rotation has finally stepped up the last few weeks, as Cole Hamels sprung on us his August surprise by winning NL Pitcher of the Month.
In terms of the bullpen, I expected its heavy use to catch up by mid-year, but this didn’t happen until more recently. Now it appears Steve Cishek has finally hit his rubber-arm limit, and Brandon Morrow remains a question mark. The team should have enough for the stretch run, but without a healthy Morrow in the postseason, protecting late leads will require some real creativity by Maddon and a cast-iron GI tract for the rest of us.
4) Expect a major lineup change
Throughout the year, I spotlighted my concern about this lineup’s challenges against power arms and the need to add an extra contact bat. The team did not address it in the offseason or at the trade deadline, but my stress level sure lessened when they lucked out with that god-sent Daniel Murphy waiver deal.
Thus, the Cubs now have their greatest playoff win potential against power arms for any point in the Theo Epstein era, especially once Jason Heyward returns. Still, Maddon has some work to figure out the optimal balance point between Murphy’s bat and defensive liabilities.
I hoped playing Murphy at third base could be an option against teams without great bunting proficiency and when Lester wasn’t pitching. However, Murphy has yet to play anywhere but second. This leaves perhaps two options. The most obvious is lifting Murphy for a defensive replacement after the Cubs get a lead and he gets two to three at-bats against an elite starter.
A second option is to deploy more defensive shifts against right-side-dominant hitters. The Cubs normally don’t shift a lot, largely because of the plus-range of Russell, Baez and Rizzo. But with the personnel change at second, it would behoove the Cubs – and especially their pitchers – to get more experience in September with right-side shifts.
Those were the original tips, but for stretch-run sanity, here’s one extra:
5) Enjoy these games
As we saw in the current and previous Milwaukee series, the importance of every game, every scoring opportunity, every out has ramped up. That’s when baseball is at its most enjoyable. Whether you agree with each decision by the players and manager, the strategic aspect of the game really escalates this time of year.
So distract your nervous mind by diving into the game within the game. Maddon always gets his playoff starters extra rest in mid-September, but will he manage to do the same for his key relievers and Contreras? How does Maddon shuffle his offensive and defensive options once Heyward returns? Will the team try to mitigate the defensive drop-off with Murphy at second?
In this way, consider the stretch run your warmup for the playoffs when the tension ratchets up even further.