The Cubs were held to three or fewer runs for the seventh time in eight games, matching the number of such games they had in their first 35 contests. Against the best offense in baseball, three runs is hardly ever enough.
Top Play (WPA): The Cardinals nosed out to an early lead on Monday night, but the Cubs pushed two runs across in the fourth inning and another in the fifth, carrying a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh. A two-run, pinch-hit home run from Matt Adams erased that narrow lead, though, so in the top of the ninth, the sputtering Chicago offense found itself in need of another rally. With Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal on the mound, Dexter Fowler led off with a single to center field, and after a Kris Bryant strikeout, Ben Zobrist came up with the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of solid and important singles, grounding one through the middle and into center and allowing Fowler to race to third base (+0.188 WPA). Rosenthal has been struggling lately, and Zobrist’s hit put the go-ahead run 90 feet from home with one out and Anthony Rizzo coming up. Rizzo, however, remains mired in a bad funk, and when he blooped one at St. Louis third baseman Matt Carpenter for a double play, the rally died an excruciatingly abrupt death.
Bottom Play (WPA): Adam Warren had taken over for John Lackey in the bottom of the eighth inning, and with the specter of extra innings looming, Joe Maddon asked Warren to give him three more outs. He got two, needing seven pitches to fan Brandon Moss but inducing a groundout by Yadier Molina. That brought up Randal Grichuk, who has many flaws, but whose strength is his, well, strength. Warren fell behind 2-0, and although he fought back to 2-2, Grichuk got a good enough look at him to ride that 2-2 pitch out of the park for a walk-off homer (-0.468 WPA).
Key Moment: Lackey was the picture of ruthless efficiency through six innings, setting the Cardinals down on 71 pitches, allowing virtually nothing except their oddly formed third-inning rally. In the seventh, though, Molina led off with a single. Lackey got a pop out from Grichuk and fanned Kolten Wong, but then Adams stepped to the plate, pinch-hitting for Seung Hwan Oh. Lackey is one of the most consistent first-pitch strike throwers in the big leagues, but he fell behind Adams, first 1-0, then 2-1. Adams hit the next pitch a few feet over the wall in dead center field, a game-tying bomb that hit the road-weary and scuffling Cubs like a cannon ball in the belly. The visitors did mount that ninth-inning rally, but they wouldn’t manage a single extra-base hit all night, and the ease with which the Cardinals had erased the lead the Cubs had carved out with such painstaking offensive effort just deflated them.
Trend to Watch: The story continues to be the poor offense. The Cubs showed a few more signs of life than they have in most recent games on Monday, notching nine hits and reaching a total of 14 times. Again, though, they didn’t manage an extra-base hit of any species, and that made for some frustrating half-rallies but not much honest excitement. Even the runs they did score (one on a broken-bat single, one after a Cardinals miscue on a bad bunt by Javier Baez) didn’t affirm the team’s offensive talent especially strongly.
Rizzo, who is fairly studious in his efforts to understand opposing pitchers’ repertoires and approaches, suffers at times from his failure to apply the same attention to detail in maintaining his own approach, and his swing. Admittedly a feel hitter, Rizzo always says he pays little attention to his mechanics. The problem with such an approach is that he can get into slumps, like the one he’s been in for the last week and change, during which he loses the rhythm and timing critical to his swing, and has no mental or physical landmarks to use to get back into the groove. It just has to work itself out, and the length of time that can take hurts the team.
Miguel Montero is back from the DL, but it’s clear he’s still not the same player he was at the end of 2015. Age and a nagging back injury have made it hard for him to maintain both the balance and the violence necessary to make the mechanical adjustments he used to great effect last season work the same way. There are some pitches, down and over the outer part of the plate, where it’s clear that the hobbled Montero is simply unable to pull the trigger. On others, he just can’t generate the same bat speed, because he’s not able to use his lower body in concert with his hands as well as he did in 2015. He had two opposite-field hits on Monday, but both were singles, and neither was especially well struck. In late 2015, he would have had at least a double on at least one of those pitches.
Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, and Baez remain lost, in a more holistic, less explainable way. They simply seem overwhelmed. Baez is swinging at everything. Russell seems eager to bash his way out of his slump, but is spinning off hittable pitches inside, or lunging at pitches away. Soler is getting a bit better at working counts to get his pitch, though he still gets turned inside out when an opposing hurler pitches him backward. With Soler, the big problem is that he tends to foul off his pitch when it comes, instead of barreling it up and driving it somewhere useful. His swing is just a little bit stiff, and it results in bad timing on precisely the pitches where he has the best chances to do damage. Young hitters just go through stretches like these. It’s unfortunate for the Cubs, but it’s the cost of their model for success. The good news is that each player is making progress, albeit halting progress, and that could mean they all break out tomorrow. The bad news is that they could all stay stuck this way until mid-June. None of them are so polished at the plate as to be guaranteed to work their way out of the hole quickly.
Adam Warren hasn’t been very good this season. Despite occasionally flashing impressive stuff, he’s demonstrated loose command of his fastball, often falls behind in counts, has walked too many batters, and generally lacks the dominance for which the Cubs hoped when they penciled him in as their bridge, their high-leverage, multi-inning relief weapon.
What’s Next: Jason Hammel will try to get the Cubs back on track (and give them a chance to win the series) on Tuesday night, facing Michael Wacha. The game starts at 6:10 Central, to accommodate ESPN’s broadcast, but can also be found on CSN Chicago. Read more about the matchup in our series preview.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports