At some point, the Chicago Cubs have to break out of this offensive funk they have been in during the month of September. A lineup consisting of the 2016 National League MVP, 2016 NLCS co-MVP and current MVP-candidate has largely been unable to get much going at the plate down the stretch.
Entering play, the Cubs’ offense ranked solidly in the bottom half of the league in many categories through the first three-plus weeks of this month. Never a power-hitting team, the Cubs sported the fifth worst ISO (.130) prior to Tuesday night’s match-up with the Pittsburgh Pirates while at the same time logging the seventh lowest batting average in the National League across that same time frame.
The bad news does not stop there, unfortunately, as Chicago began play ranked 11th in the NL with a 77 wRC+ since September 1, a number not helped along by their 25.2 percent strikeout rate (fifth highest in the NL) and 7.1 percent walk rate (12th in the NL).
So, to summarize, the Cubs have been one of the worst power-hitting teams this month while at the same time striking out way too much and overall not reaching base enough to produce anything offensively (.296 OBP this month).
A deeper dive into the Cubs’ batted balls this month does not go very far in calming fan’s nerves about this team collapsing down the stretch. Prior to Tuesday, Chicago owned a hard contact rate of just 28.3 percent this month, a number that ranked 12th in the NL while at the same time posting the fifth highest soft contact percentage (19.5 percent) in the league.
All of the Cubs’ pitfalls would be on display against the Pirates after both teams were forced to wait out a 55-minute rain delay that moved first pitch to right around 8:00 p.m. local time.
The extra down time did little to jump-start a Cubs’ offense that has, as outlined, produced a lackluster effort thus far in September.
Just a day after dropping the opener of a four-game set with Pirates by a score of 5-1, a game in which the Cubs left eight men on-base, it seemed the club would get their offense rolling early. A quick Daniel Murphy single into center field gave way to an even quicker Ben Zobrist fly out to center field.
This season — perhaps propelling a resurgent campaign — Zobrist has been more aggressive swinging at the first of an at-bat, something he did in each of his first two plate appearances on Tuesday. While neither of those swings produced a base hit (pop-out in the third inning), Zobrist is still in the middle of a bounce back season that will need to continue if the Cubs have any chance of winning the division and going deep into the postseason.
Zobrist’s success the remainder of the season is so important because the rest of the Cubs’ order is doing next to nothing of late. An Anthony Rizzo fielder’s choice and Javier Baez single did move an early runner into scoring position, giving the Cubs an early chance to grab the lead in the first. However, Kyle Schwarber stepped to the plate, bringing his .204 batting average with runners scoring position this season to the dish with him. That number held up, as Schwarber could not continue his solid month of September, striking out swinging to end the threat.
Prior to that at-bat, Schwarber had been enjoying success in 27 at-bats this month after missing some time with back issues. His .296/.441/.741/1.182 slash line has shown Joe Maddon the youngster is close to returning to his former self in such a convincing way that the Cubs’ skipper has been batting him fifth recently.
Again in the third inning, the Cubs were presented with a good run-scoring opportunity. A Rizzo double, just barely inside the left field line, gave Baez a chance to drive in his 111th RBI this season. Despite Baez taking advantage of those opportunities much of the season, the youngster struck out on Tuesday night, leaving another runner in scoring position.
As touched on above, the Cubs have struggled this month with the strikeout, something that did not change against a strikeout-oriented pitcher in Chris Archer. While down this season compared to previous campaigns, Archer’s strikeout rate of 24.9 percent prior to Tuesday was still solidly above league average. In the first, Archer got Schwarber to swing-and-miss in a big spot for his first strikeout of the evening. Archer’s third punch out came just one inning later and once again helped put to rest a Cub rally.
A Jason Heyward one-out walk and wild pitch gave the Cubs a runner on second with just one away in the home half of the second inning. Willson Contreras‘ strikeout for the second out of the inning loomed large as that then sent Mike Montgomery to the plate, effectively ending what looked like another promising inning for the home team.
Perhaps presented with their best chance to score in the sixth inning, the Cubs once again failed to cash-in. A Rizzo walk and Baez infield single put runners on first and third with only one out after a quick review determined Javy had beaten the throw from the Pirates’ third baseman. Following that reach, however, Schwarber and Tommy La Stella both struck out swinging, running Archer’s strikeout total to nine.
While the offense continued to sputter throughout Archer’s strong outing, the Cubs’ rotation did little to help for the second straight night. Despite Cole Hamels allowing a two-run home run in the first inning of Monday’s contest, the southpaw was able to settle-in and finish off six rather solid frames. Mike Montgomery, on the other hand, would not be as lucky just 24 hours later.
A quick one, two, three inning in the first had hopeful Cub fans wishing that would hold up for the remainder of the night. Through a career-high 17 starts this season, Montgomery has posted a 3.35 ERA in Yu Darvish‘s stead. After his comments this past offseason about wanting to be in the starting rotation, it has been nice to see the southpaw step-up in a big way this season.
However, Tuesday night would not be an uplifting outing for the left-hander. Montgomery’s quick first inning rapidly gave way to a one-out double and walk in the following frame. While not the end of the world, rookie Pablo Reyes‘ three-run home run in the second inning might as well have been a seven-run long-ball.
What was just a three-run lead felt like a much bigger deficit as the Cubs — as outlined above — continued to show zero evidence of wanting to wrap-up their third straight division title. Instead, the Pirates continued to tack on runs as the game progressed, adding insurance in the third, fifth and sixth innings, pushing their lead to 6-0 over the Cubs.
Of those six runs, five were charged to Montgomery, as the southpaw lasted just four frames. Montgomery’s final line looked like this: four innings, seven hits, five earned runs, one walk and three strikeouts on 62 pitches.
Perhaps more importantly than losing a lop-sided game to a team already out of the postseason picture is the implications it has on the division lead. Another win by the Milwaukee Brewers and loss by the Cubs trimmed the North Sider’s lead in the division to a half game, by far the closest it’s been in a while. Additionally, the Cubs have now dropped four of their last six games against teams already out of the playoff race, while the Brewers have now won three in a row.
With the loss, the Cubs drop to 91-66 while the Pirates improve to 80-76 on the season.
Next Up For The Cubs
The Cubs will continue their four-game set with the Pirates on Wednesday, September 26 at 7:05 p.m. at Wrigley Field. Taking the ball for the Cubs will be Jose Quintana (13-11, 4.11 ERA). Even after allowing five earned runs on nine hits over five innings against the Chicago White Sox on September 21, the southpaw still owns a solid 3.47 ERA this month. Additionally, Quintana has struck out 27 batters in September versus just seven free passes.
Opposing Quintana on the mound Wednesday will be Ivan Nova (9-9, 4.01 ERA). Nova, 31, has been terrific of late, posting a 1.10 ERA over his last three outings. Spanning 16.1 innings, Nova has struck out 15 batters and walked just four while allowing two earned runs on 10 hits.
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