By Jason Keidel
The Chicago Cubs barreled their way to their first World Series title in over a century last season. And they entered this year as the chalk to return to the Fall Classic.
Which should have brought a haunting feeling to the Windy City, as things in sports rarely go as scripted. Particularly in baseball, where the grind of summer and 162 games usually exacts an unforeseen tax on every team.
In the NFL, there’s often a Super Bowl hangover, and surely there are similar poisoned cocktails of chemistry in all team sports. The Cubs have no doubt been bitten by some post-title lethargy, and are in serious need of some Alka-Seltzer.
For all the muscular lumber the Cubs swung last year and brought this year, they entered the weekend 29th in MLB with a .237 BA. Only the San Diego Padres are worse in the entire sport. Only the Padres have fewer total hits than the Cubs (643). Chicago is 20th with a .323 on-base percentage, and 20th with a .415 slugging percentage. (All stats are as of Sunday.)
For all the arms the Cubs have, their pitching has not been as sturdy as last year’s. While the team sports a respectable 4.06 ERA, did anyone think the Yankees’ pitching would be better this deep into 2017?
The whole world saw the science-fiction number of stolen bases the Nats put on the Cubs a week ago, a merry-go-round of cinematic contours, something more befitting a Three Stooges set than MLB park. It got so bad you saw Nats players smirking into their lifted shirts. It got so bad that Cubs catcher Miguel Montero called out Jake Arrieta for having such a glacial delivery to home plate. It got so bad the Cubs cut Montero for saying it.
The Cubs are a mess. Yet for all their failures and foibles, they’re just a whisker from first place. While the NL Central is normally a cauldron of sizzling summer clubs, this year’s iteration is a portrait in mediocrity. Even with a woeful 40-41 record entering Sunday, Chicago is only three games behind the Brewers, who were hardly picked to moonwalk with the division title this season. Contemporary powers like the Pirates and Cardinals are having subterranean seasons. Not even the Reds, known to pop their heads into a playoff race, can keep their nostrils near the .500 waters.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s not about who plays the Cubs, but rather how the Cubs will play. They still have loads of talent. And they still have Joe Maddon, the hippie skipper with the geek-chic glasses who sleeps in a trailer park during spring training, with his old-school RV. Maddon is a picture of equanimity, a baseball lifer who has seen far worse than this, especially at his prior job, as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. Between Maddon and his boss, Theo Epstein, who had experience breaking biblical curses in Boston, you won’t get a whiff of panic or impatience.
And the Cubs have had their share of ugly luck. Just the other day, all-world third baseman Kris Bryant mangled his ankle by, well, stepping on third base, while catching a pop-up. Replays show the right foot fold under his ankle while simply trotting toward his home dugout.
The injury bug has dotted the diamond in Chicago. Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward were recently on the 10-day DL. Kyle Hendricks has been on the DL for nearly a month, and Addison Russell has skipped a few starts.
During last year’s enchanted run to the title, the Cubs’ rotation was quite robust, with four pitchers making at least 30 starts, and a fifth, John Lackey, making 29. Likewise, six position players started at least 140 games, with two more reaching at least 100.
But this year the Cubs signed Brett Anderson to be their fifth starter, only to see him plop onto the 60-day DL. Hendricks was one of the three best starters in the NL last year, but has been saddled with tendinitis in his pitching hand. It all adds to an ugly or unlucky amalgam of maladies for the defending champs, who have no point of reference when it comes to defending a title that hasn’t belonged to them since 1908.
But even without the bumps or bruises, how could the Cubs have possibly played up to last year’s level? Consider the aggregate push and pressure that came with ending that biblical, 108-year World Series drought? Imagine the collective sigh of relief, the million-fan exhale. The celebration.
And the hangover.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.