Struggling Cubs know the deal: 'We need to clean this up'

ST. LOUIS — There were no goofy outfits for the Chicago Cubs’ plane ride home Sunday afternoon. No crazed dances or blaring music.

Just silence.

Those lovable Cubs, who cruised to 103 victories and stopped the baseball universe when they won the World Series last year, dreaming of turning this club into a dynasty, find themselves in the depths of mediocrity.

The Cubs lost again Sunday, 5-0 to the St. Louis Cardinals, as former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta gave up two more homers, leadoff batter Kyle Schwarber went hitless again and the Cubs spent Mother’s Day spitting oil trying to keep up in the National League Central.

The Cubs, who were expected to be printing out invitations to their World Series gala right about now, are 18-19, sitting in fourth place in the NL Central. They trail the Cardinals by 3½ games, their biggest deficit since Oct. 3, 2015.

This is a team that had a 7½-game lead on Mother’s Day a year ago. They didn’t lose their 19th game of the season until June 13 when they were 43-19. So, unless the Cubs reel off a 25-game winning streak, this ride to October will be a whole lot bumpier than anyone imagined.

“We’ve got to get better, get something going and figure this out before it’s too late,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero told USA TODAY Sports. “What’s so strange is that I actually believe we have even a better team than last year, so I don’t know what’s going on.

“I don’t think anyone is too concerned yet, but we’ve got to get back to being hungry. We need to clean this up. We have to come out and compete every day. We can’t just show up and expect to win, because it doesn’t work that way. This is baseball. Anything can happen. We’ve got to get this thing going.”

Certainly, any freakout is coming externally.

The Cubs are still the team to beat in the NL Central, if not the National League. They simply have too much young talent.

Come on,  Schwarber won’t be batting .179 all season. Cleanup hitter Anthony Rizzo won’t be batting .213 when October rolls around. Their lineup won’t always resemble a split-squad game in Mesa, Ariz., with half of their starting position players out with varying aches and pains.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to panic,” says Arrieta, who will be a free agent after the season. “The talent we have here will correct itself and start to turn itself around. But we’d love to win a few more games and tighten things up a little bit.”

The Cubs, who have had five ring ceremonies, played in three ESPN Sunday night games and spent nearly as many days in St. Louis over the first six weeks as Chicago, think normalcy is just around the corner.

“We’re all frustrated,” Cubs ace Jon Lester said after Saturday’s loss. “Nobody wants to suck. Nobody wants to lose. We’re all frustrated, but all grinding.”

If the Cubs have one overriding concern, it’s their starting rotation. A year ago, it  led the major leagues  with a 2.96 ERA. This year, it’s the eighth worst. Their biggest enigma has been Arrieta. He won the Cy Young Award two years ago with a 22-6 record and 1.77 ERA, won 18 games with a 3.10 ERA last year, but this year is yielding a 5.44 ERA, including 7.27 in his last five starts.

“That (velocity) just hasn’t been there, I don’t know what else to say,” Montero said. “I don’t know if he has a dead arm or is fatigued from last year, but velo is not the same. Even if he was throwing 90-91 (mph), he used to have a giddy-up to it, but until today I didn’t really see that. He hasn’t had that explosion out of his hand.

“But today was the best I’ve seen him. Maybe that’ll change now.”

The radar gun reveals Arrieta’s average fastball dropping from 94.5 mph in 2015 to 93.6 mph last year to 91.7 mph this season. He didn’t throw a single pitch faster than 93 mph Sunday, with Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter each hitting two-run homers off his sinker. He has given up eight home runs in 44⅔ innings, just two shy of his entire total during his Cy Young season.

“I don’t get off the bandwagon very easily,” says Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who broke out a Hawaiian shirt for the flight home. “I believe it will be just a snap of the fingers where everything will fall in place. I don’t think you’ll see this slow method of better, better, better, better, great. I just think all of a sudden you’ll see something click, and he’ll be back closer to where he had been.”

It’s no different, the Cubs say, with Schwarber, who’s in the deepest funk of his career. He’s looking like a guy who missed all of last season with torn knee ligaments and not the one who spoiled everyone by returning to hit .412 in the World Series.

“I guess when it’s going bad, it goes bad,” Schwarber said softly of going hitless in his last 16 at-bats. “It stinks, but you can’t let it bother you. It’s a crazy game. It can put you in a great place, it can put you in a bad place. Obviously, it gets frustrating, but I’m still confident.”

The Cubs, of course, still have the most talented team in the division and possibly in the entire National League. If they need help, particularly another pitcher, the market will be flooded with starters at the trade deadline, with everyone from Yu Darvish to Zack Greinke to Johnny Cueto likely to be available.

And if they go down that path, they’ve got more than enough depth in their organization to pull it off, rival executives say, starting with Ian Happ and Jeimer Candelario, who are showcasing their skills at the big-league level with their call-ups this past week.

“You never anticipate guys that good struggling at this point as much as they have,” Maddon says. “So I really believe that in some perverse way is actually OK, or a good thing, because I have that much faith in our guys.

“I know our run is in there, and when that run shows up, I’m certain we’ll take off again.”

The launch date just happens to be later than anyone ever anticipated.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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