Doubts about Cubs’ offense high after sweep in Atlanta
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter May 11, 2014 9:42PM
Chicago Cubs catcher Welington Castillo, left, and shortstop Starlin Castro, right, lean against the dugout railing as they watch the top of the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Sunday, May 11, 2014, in Atlanta. Atlanta won 5-2. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) ORG XMIT: GAJB113
Updated: May 13, 2014 6:39PM
ATLANTA — Watching the Cubs try to score runs this season feels a lot like that scene where Jack Nicholson’s character walks into the psychiatrist’s waiting room, takes one look at the patients and says, ‘‘What if this is as good as it gets?’’
In the Cubs’ case, the question seems to have been answered for weeks, and we’ve barely reached Mother’s Day.
Not that this was supposed to be The Year when the Cubs turned the corner or tried to flip the competitive switch with all those prospects coming in the system. But did anybody expect this in the third year of the overhaul?
When the Cubs lost 5-2 to the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, it marked the 15th time in 36 games — including all three in the Braves’ series sweep — that they’ve managed two or fewer runs. It’s been three or fewer runs 20 times.
They already were the third-lowest scoring team in the National League entering play Sunday before 36-year-old Aaron Harang, an overlooked free agent signed at the end of spring training because of injuries, struck them out nine times in a six-inning start.
Both players with long-term contracts — Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro — are having the rebound seasons, so far, that the Cubs hoped to see. And despite Emilio Bonifacio’s recent struggles, their on-base percentage from the leadoff spot ranks third in the NL.
The only two runs Sunday were created by Rizzo’s leadoff walk in the fourth, followed by Castro’s double, with Nate Schierholtz driving both in with another double.
Yet here they are, a team whose starting outfield Sunday doesn’t have a home run this season. Whose pitching ace, Jeff Samardzija, has the second-best ERA in the majors through eight starts but doesn’t have a win. Whose lineup has more strikeouts (89) with men in scoring position than RBI (87) and a .195 average.
‘‘We’ve got to keep plugging away,’’ said manager Rick Renteria, who has used almost every lineup combination available. Asked after Sunday’s game if he could think of any other potential changes to make, he said, ‘‘No.’’
‘‘We can put the bat on the ball,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve got to do a better job of understanding the situation and not getting ourselves too excited — take the emotion out of it.’’
That’s what hitting coaches Bill Mueller and Mike Brumley have stressed, especially lately, Renteria said. ‘‘But it’s still a process.’’
Or not. Maybe this is all there is.
Don’t expect to see any help anytime soon from those prospects. The top-ranked hitter in the system, Javy Baez, is struggling to hit .150 at Class AAA Iowa and has the highest strikeout rate in the Pacific Coast League.
And don’t even think about hot-hitting Class AA slugger Kris Bryant. The Cubs are in no rush to move him to AAA, much less Chicago.
At this rate, the Cubs’ struggles are putting them in play for the top overall pick in next year’s draft. They’re on a 108-loss pace as they head to St. Louis for a four-game series starting Monday.
As good as it gets in 2014?
‘‘No,’’ Renteria insisted. ‘‘Are these guys the final product? No. That’s my answer. These players are not the final product. There’s a lot of skill in these guys, and they’re not completely there yet. They’re chipping away.’’
Chipping away at attendance, maybe. Chipping away at the confidence of a pitching staff that actually has kept a lot of games close — a pitching staff that figures to be decimated again at the trading deadline.
As good as it gets?
Take another look around Nicholson’s waiting room and pull up a chair for the final 126 games.