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SportsMondayTuesday: The Cubs' Crucial Couple

A number of Cubs haven't been hitting, but what has really been killing the club the last few weeks has been the struggles of two: Javy Baez and Willson Contreras. If they aren't hitting, and they didn't hit at all in Houston and then St. Louis, it creates a gaping hole in the middle of the lineup that is almost impossible to fill.

The good news? They both hit home runs to cap off an 8-2 victory over the Angels on Monday in the team's return to the Friendly Confines after a brutal road trip. Maybe, just maybe, that was a sign that they'll both snap out of their slumber this week. And as those two go, so go the Cubs.

Contreras needs to hit to distract us from his misadventures elsewhere in his game. He continues to be a fundamentally poor pitch framer and stopper - he still hasn't learned to start his glove in the right place and to rotate it rather than moving it to get calls on the corners, and even worse, forgets to use fundamental mechanics to best stop pitches in the dirt in virtually every game. He also reminded us on Sunday that he can be aggravatingly bad running the bases.

That game featured Contreras reaching on a walk - which he still has done remarkably well this season, leading to robust on-base (.398) and OPS (.962!) numbers despite his recent struggles - and then almost getting doubled off first on a relatively routine fly to center.

Harrison Bader, who is a below average defensive centerfielder for the Cardinals despite his speed, took a nap after making the catch on that play. After multiple teammates hollered at him he finally threw late to first. But Contreras wasn't done screwing up. A few batters later he did manage to get himself doubled off first on a routine line drive to second. Argh.

In the ninth, with the Cubs trailing 2-0, Contreras had reached again when Jason Heyward shot a single into left-center field. In that situation, a baserunner must, must, advance station to station. His run doesn't matter unless the guy behind him scores. So he has to absolutely make sure he is not thrown out on the bases.

So sure enough he rounded second and needlessly headed for third. Fortunately, he got there safely. But it was still an unnecessary risk. It didn't matter when he later scored on a groundout because the baserunner behind him was stranded and the Cubs lost.

As for Baez, well, there are a couple things going on. First, we don't know how much his heel continues to bother him. My guess is it was bothering him enough to make a difference in the past week, especially when facing a host of strong Astro and Cardinal pitchers. There is also the question of whether his free-swinging style can ever be maximally efficient against better pitchers. The answer to that is probably, "No, but who cares." He is such a good all-around player that he is allowed to hit the way he hits - especially if he continues to maintain a .918 on-base plus slugging.

The good news is that the Brewers didn't take advantage of the Cubs' struggles to open up a decent-sized lead in the division in the past few weeks. The locals trail Milwaukee by a game but are tied in the loss column with 26.

Next up are the scorching Rockies, in town for night games Tuesday and Wednesday and a get-away contest Thursday afternoon. Pitchers for both teams will have their work cut out and then some.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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