DENVER – This is not a playoff team.
The Cubs are a .500, fourth-place team as they take a day off ahead of their weekend series against the division-leading Cardinals – having lost five of their last six games and three of their last four series.
Their once-vaunted fielding has been suspect. Their once-dominant starting pitching has been inconsistent. Their leadoff man is batting .195 and leads the team in strikeouts.
On one hand, there’s a lot of time left this season for the defending World Series champs to get things right.
On the other hand, it’s starting to get a little late to say it’s still early.
A playoff team? They way they’ve looked so far, dropping to 17-17 after Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to rookie German Marquez and the Rockies at Coors Field?
“I don’t think so,” said right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who was tagged with the loss despite pitching well into the seventh inning. “It’s not clear-cut. I wouldn’t say we are, and if we were to get in the playoffs right now the way we’re playing it wouldn’t go too well.”
If there’s reason for Cub optimism for what’s on the 2017 horizon, Hendricks (2-2) might be one of the bigger reasons.
The only runs he allowed Wednesday were an unearned run in the fourth on Javy Baez’s fielding error at shortstop and two runs that scored after he left the game in the seventh – when Marquez inexplicably got his bat around on an two-strike, 94-mph fastball above the letters from Carl Edwards Jr. and wound up with a two-run single with two out.
“That’s just one of those non-fortuitous moments,” said Maddon, who said it shouldn’t have mattered what pitch was thrown. “That guy can’t hit.”
If there was a fortuitous part of the game for the Cubs, it was Hendricks – last year’s major-league ERA leader – who said he felt closer to last year’s form Wednesday than he has all season.
After struggling early, he has a 1.52 ERA in his last four starts.
That start followed John Lackey’s seven-inning scoreless start in Tuesday night’s victory in the second game of a doubleheader. It’s the first set of back-to-back quality starts for the Cubs since Brett Anderson (now on the disabled list) and Hendricks did it April 24-25.
“At least over these last two games, seeing the way the bullpen threw and seeing Lack last night, hopefully we can start getting deep in games and really take it on the pitching staff,” Hendricks said, “and start setting a precedent for the rest of the team.”
Until then, the starters drag a 4.56 rotation ERA into St. Louis after returning their top four starters from a group that led the majors with a 2.96 collective ERA last year.
They also leave Colorado with a streak of five consecutive games allowing at least one unearned run (eight total in the five games) – just the latest shaky stretch for a group of fielders that lapped the majors in nearly every defensive metric last year, including defensive runs saved.
“We may not pitch that good [as in 2016], but I know we’re going to pitch better than we have to this point,” Maddon said. “We may not play defense to that level, but we’re still going to play really good defense, and it’s still going to be good enough. We’ve just got to get back closer to the levels that we’re capable of.”
The Cubs had a well-documented short off-season and consequently planned for a slow-burn buildup in spring training. They had emotional banner and ring ceremonies the second week of the season and a more recent gauntlet of rain delays and postponements, an 18-inning game Sunday and back-to-back series against hot, first-place teams.
“We’ve had some elements and some factors bothering us a little bit,” Hendricks said. “But there’s no excuses. This is our job, and we’ve got to play. We’ve just got to tighten everything up, really all-around.
“There’s a level of urgency in here.”