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SportsMonday: Are The Cubs Okay?

Is it okay for Cubs fans to be concerned yet? After four runs scored in four-plus games?

As the Cubs have strolled along at a .500 pace in the month since the All-Star break there has been a sizable segment of the local commentariat that has chastised anyone who expressed consternation about the club's inconsistency. "This is Theo's Cubs, managed by Joe Maddon," they have bleated. "They will obviously start playing better soon and cruise into the playoffs."

But the standings don't lie and the standings say the Cubs are a losing streak away from not just falling out of the division lead but falling out of a projected playoff spot. And this weekend in Pittsburgh would have been the start of just that but for some stellar pitching, defense and a little something extra on Thursday and Friday (seven double plays in nine innings is amazing execution . . . and a little luck).

So the Cubs managed to split four games in which they averaged less than a run scored per nine innings. They never did manage an RBI hit with a runner in scoring position. During the entire series.

The Cubs didn't pile up enough hits on Sunday but they did take one: There is now a great chance that Yu Darvish is done for the season after suffering pain in his pitching elbow during an abbreviated (one inning) rehab start in South Bend. Then again, after holding their foes to a single run or less in nine innings for the third time in four games ending Sunday, the pitching clearly isn't the Cubs' problem.

They take a 3 1/2-game lead on the Brewers in the Central Division into this week's action, which begins on Tuesday with the first of two games in Detroit. They are also essentially three to four games in front of the half-dozen teams in the running for the wild card spots.

The Cubs' feast-or-famine lineup too often flails away unsuccessfully at mediocre pitching. But it is tough to put a finger on specific failings, other than piling up the strikeouts. Oy they pile up the strikeouts, especially in the middle of the lineup.

Sunday's total of 15 Ks included a pair from Kyle Schwarber. That gave Schwarbs a team-leading five strikeouts on the weekend. But the leftfielder also accounted for the only tally with a towering home run in the second inning.

Ian Happ continued his strict enforcement of a too-small personal strike zone with three Ks in three at-bats. His batting average dipped below .240 on Sunday but he had a huge home run earlier in the series and his on-base percentage still hovers around .360.

And as good as the pitching has been, the defense has been right there with it. Schwarber recorded his 10th outfield assist on the season when he threw to Javy Baez, who gunned it to Wilson Contreras, who somehow snagged an in-between hop and managed to apply the tag in time on an amazing play at the plate in the seventh inning.

Maddon pointed out Sunday that he might make a few more changes in the lineup to try to shake things up but that some guys, particularly Addison Russell and Contreras (three strikeouts on Sunday), play such good defense that he hates to take them out.

Crunch time is arriving. Starting Tuesday, the Cubs don't have a break in the schedule until Sept. 13. Fortunately Maddon's typical rotating lineup has this team as fresh as it can be going into it. They still go 10 deep with starting caliber players who are quite capable of getting hot with the bat and have one star bench player (Tommy La Stella, still leading the league in pinch hits) and another (Victor Caratini) who is serviceable and switch hits (or switch strikes out).

As long as the Cubs can avoid doing things like getting picked off third with one out (the worst base-running screw-up of the season courtesy of Mr. Russell on Sunday. And it was completely his fault despite what the manager said after the game) in an 11th inning, they should be okay.

"Unless they aren't," the fan worried.

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