So that six-game winning streak was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it?
The Cubs’ perfect second half came to a crashing halt Friday in the series opener with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, an 11-4 drubbing low-lighted by a never-ending eighth inning in which the Cards torched the Cubs’ bullpen for nine runs.
It was a screaming reminder that the second half, even with its 6-0 start, won’t be all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for the defending champs.
One nasty result after a six-game stretch of hot bats and hot pitching shouldn’t send Cubs fans panicking about a falling sky — even though the heavens opened up and poured a gigantic, watery metaphor down on the Friendly Confines after Friday’s bullpen implosion.
But it also looked like an indication that the troubles of a sub-.500 first half might not be totally exorcized from Wrigley Field’s home clubhouse. Not that that’s denting the team’s confidence in any way.
“I don’t think we’ve gotten too high or too low, even throughout some slumps where we weren’t very happy about the way we were playing,” starting pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “I feel like we’ve been able to maintain an even keel and stay focused. While there has been some frustration, that’s just kind of the nature of not playing up to your potential and knowing you’re better than you’re playing. But having said that, we are positive and will remain to be so throughout the near future and stretch of games we have coming up. We look forward to playing some good baseball.”
Most importantly, perhaps, Friday’s result showed that it’s not just the first-place Milwaukee Brewers that the Cubs have to be concerned with in what is suddenly a tight and crowded race in the National League Central.
The Cubs might have gotten within a game of the Brewers, but the Cardinals and the surging Pittsburgh Pirates are right there, too. After Friday’s game on the North Side went final, the four teams were within four games of each other. A Brewers loss Friday night in Philadelphia could make things even closer.
“Baseball’s crazy,” outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “You’ve seen a lot of races, I’m sure, and this is just the way that this division’s playing out. It’s really competitive between all of us.”
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Not dissimilarly from that up-and-down first half, Friday’s contest had signs both positive and negative for the team still on a quest to repeat as World Series champions.
Arrieta might’ve been relatively unremarkable, but he only gave up two runs in six innings, bettering numbers that were downright ugly earlier this season and perhaps signaling that his second half will be far more consistent than his first. In four July starts, he’s got a 2.13 ERA after posting ERAs above 4.50 in each of the first three months of the season.
Willson Contreras continued his torrid July with a first-inning home run. He’s batting .363 on the month with five homers and 12 RBIs in 14 games.
But the negatives were gaudier and more directly involved in the result. In addition to the offense going 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranding nine base runners, a bullpen that had been incredibly reliable fell apart in can’t-look-away fashion. Carl Edwards Jr., Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm combined to allow the first 11 batters of the eighth inning to reach. The first nine of them scored. Five of them walked.
Theo Epstein’s front office likely won’t answer the call of fans on Twitter howling for the team to trade for relief help. There’s no need to do that. Only the seemingly unbeatable Los Angeles Dodgers have a better bullpen ERA in the NL than the Cubs’ 3.51 mark.
“I trust our guys,” Maddon said, reacting to Friday’s nightmarish eighth. “The right guys are out there. C.J. was the right guy for the moment, it didn't play out. Rondon’s been throwing the ball great, but I really put him in a no-win situation. That’s my fault. And finally, Grimmer just had to suck it up.”
Maddon’s not wrong in singing the season-long praises of the three guys who got lit up Friday. But undoubtedly those three relievers provided some evidence that the final two and a half months of the regular season might not feature the Cubs sprinting away from their division-mates.
No, this could be a knock-down, drag-out fight to the finish. And the Cubs have 26 games remaining against the Brewers, Pirates and Cardinals.
So buckle up.
“That’s what you get when you play these kinds of teams that have a shot to reach the postseason,” Arrieta said. “We’re all within a few games of each other, so in our minds it’s up for grabs, it’s ours to take and we look forward to the opportunity to do so.”