CINCINNATI — For anyone who remembers last season, this should sum up the week on the mound for the Chicago Cubs: The only time in 2016 they went at least six straight games without a quality start — besides the final six of the regular season when they weren’t playing for anything — was July 1-10 when they went 10 straight without a quality turn (three earned runs or less, six innings pitched or more). That was part of an infamous stretch of bad baseball for the team, where fatigue set in during a stretch of playing 24 games in 24 days.
The Cubs just had an off day on Thursday, so it’s not the schedule that’s affecting them this time. Yet here they are, not getting six innings from a starter without giving up at least four earned runs. After Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, John Lackey has two of those six starts. They won the series but failed to complete their first sweep of the season.
“I don’t care about (the) series right now,” Lackey said. “I’m pissed.”
“I felt like I pitched better than the numbers are going to show. Two of the first three runs are a couple balls that fell in. I didn’t give up a lot of hard contact.”
Lackey is half right. First off, his defense let him down from the start when Billy Hamilton blooped a ball into center field — Jon Jay had a bad jump on it — then stole two bases. Errors by Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant later on didn’t help Lackey either, but giving up a home run to Scott Schebler and a bases-loaded double to Patrick Kivlehan is on the pitcher.
“He looks good to me,” catcher Miguel Montero said after handling Lackey’s start. “Unfortunately it feels like every little mistake, he’s paying for.”
Montero could have helped relegate any starting pitching questions to the background as the Cubs attempted yet another late-inning comeback, but his ninth-inning double-play grounder ended a chance at their fifth straight win after trailing at some point in the game. So without the offense bailing the staff out this time around, the rotation problems that the Cubs have had to work around these past six games come to light a little more.
Kyle Hendricks hasn’t had a quality start yet this season, while Jake Arrieta got hit hard early in his win on Saturday. Even Jon Lester struggled against the Reds on Friday; he has the club’s most recent quality start, delivered last Sunday against the Pirates.
“As long as they’re healthy, I’m fine,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And they’re healthy.”
There’s probably little reason for concern, although any time a 38-year-old pitcher starts the season with a 4.88 ERA (and 16 runs allowed in 24 innings) after four starts, you’re allowed to pause for a moment. But it also makes sense that the Cubs’ top starters might have a little drop after starting off strong during the first 10 days of the season — plus they had that short offseason and took it easy in camp.
A dominant month wasn’t expected, but this six-game slide as far as their starting pitchers’ performance seems like enough. Great American Ball Park isn’t exactly the place to make life easier for anybody on the mound, but PNC Park in Pittsburgh can play a lot bigger. Maybe that’s where the Cubs’ rotation will get their mojo back.
“I have no issues,” Maddon reiterated. “If they are healthy, I’m good.”