After a rocky start to the season, the Chicago Cubs have flip-flopped between heading up the wildly competitive NL Central and hoping to snag a Wild Card berth. Now a handful of games back from the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, where they’ll wind up at the end of September is anyone’s guess. The Cubs have only won five out of their last 10 games, but things feel like they’re on the up and up, right? They’re still fending off the Milwaukee Brewers (and praying the Arizona Diamondbacks don’t make a run) as they keep chasing the Cards. So what challenges do the Cubs face now as September begins? And what shape will they (potentially) enter the MLB playoffs in? Let’s discuss…
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The Cubs would love to win their third NL Central Division title in four years, but it’s going to take some extra firepower, particularly in the batting lineup. The Cubs have been criticized for relying too much on the home run, and while manager Joe Maddon has stressed the importance of using the whole field, many sportswriters believe Chicago’s players go up to bat with one thing on their minds: knocking one out. These same guys think the Cubs could perform better by putting men on base and getting the ball in play to score runs. They did this last week with hits by Rizzo, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber against the Mariners, and it worked out to their benefit.
According to Schwarber, “I wish that everyone on the outside could see the motivation that we have in the clubhouse and in the dugout between innings when we’re not scoring. We believe that we’re one hit away every time.”
In their Labor Day win over the Seattle Mariners, we saw the Cubs unleash five runs in the seventh inning, a display of power they’d like to replicate more often.
Chicago has one glaring hole in their batting lineup: the leadoff spot. While they’ve tried to mix it up, the Cubs still have the worst on-base percentage from the leadoff spot – .282 – in the whole MLB. Ben Zobrist is finally back after taking time off to deal with a divorce, but it’s not clear if he’ll make a big impact on the Cubs’ offense just yet. Maddon will likely place the 38-year-old Zobrist in that first position and pray that he performs in spite of some potential rustiness. Outfielder Jason Heyward has been the Cubs’ most recent leadoff hitter, but his efforts have been, well, less than desirable with a .252 OBP. Compare that to Zobrist’s .343 OBP before he took time off.
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Funnily enough, it’s that leadoff position in the lineup that seems to be jinxed for the Cubs. Before spending some time there, Heyward was having a solid season. Schwarber didn’t do so well as the first batter either, with only a .304 OBP. Albert Almora wasn’t great, and neither was Daniel Decalso. Anthony Rizzo can hit, but he’s not really fast enough. (He also just broke the Cubs’ franchise record for the most times being hit by a pitch.) Some have suggested Kris Bryant as a good option for the top of the order; he hit at the number-one spot a few times last year and performed pretty well. But what happens at the leadoff spot will ultimately be up to Maddon.
Let’s talk about a few good things though. Nick Castellanos has been excellent for the Cubs’ scoring since they nabbed him before the July trade deadline this year. The former Tigers outfielder has had 20 RBIs and 11 homers since joining Chicago, so they may talk about keeping him around long-term. In addition, on the mound, starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks is improving, throwing seven strikeouts last Monday and looking deadly at home. Jon Lester is also showing signs of life after having a terrible August.
Injuries still abound for Chicago, and late in the season, it’s not a promising look. Pitcher Brandon Morrow is likely out with elbow pain (which means they probably won’t re-sign him). Yu Darvish missed a game with forearm tightness and while it doesn’t seem like anything too serious, the Cubs may choose to monitor his workload as we head toward October. Second baseman Daniel Decalso is supposedly better, having been activated from the Injured List in early September, but he hasn’t played yet. Another knock to the lineup is Javy Baez’s absence. The shortstop was out after jamming his left thumb during a slide in last Sunday’s game, but hopefully he’ll be back soon.
The good news? Catcher Wilson Contreras was activated from the IL and returned to the field last week.
The Cubs took on division competitors the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend and today they’ll begin a four-game road series against the San Diego Padres. This weekend, they’ll face the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are currently bringing up the rear in the NL Central. We’ve got tickets to all the games so you can enjoy the last bit of summer out at the ball game with friends and family!
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