Following skid, Cubs buoyed by 'solace' of staying within striking distance

ByJesse Rogers ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 24, 2023

CHICAGO -- A recent 2-7 road trip left the Chicago Cubssix games under .500, but their manager is staying positive about their playoff hopes thanks to a weak NL Central.

"Thank goodness for the s---ty play of everybody in the division," David Ross said with a smile Tuesday afternoon, before the Cubs (21-26) beat the visiting New York Mets 7-2 to begin a nine-game homestand.

Six games separate the five teams in the division, led by Milwaukee but with only a .542 winning percentage. With their win Tuesday, the Cubs are 4 games back of theBrewers.

"The story of our season so far is we've struggled in high leverage situations, both offensively and pitching wise," president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "We're seventh in wOBA offensively, and seventh in wOBA from a pitching standpoint. That looks great. There's only a couple teams that are in the top group in both but we've been really poor in high-leverage situations.

"That's the reason our record isn't flipped or even better."

According to Fangraphs, the Cubs' offense ranks 30th in MLB in offensive clutch rating with a -6.02 mark. For context, the Twins are 29th at -2.37 and the Padres are 28th at -1.68. Meanwhile, Chicago is tied for 28th in clutch rating for pitching.

"It's a hard thing to put your finger on," Hoyer said. "Is it pitch selection? Is it pitch execution? Is it putting the right people in the right place to succeed at the right time? Offensively, it's the same thing. Are we swinging at the right pitches? Are we trying to do too much? It's a hard thing to pull apart."

Hoyer was asked about Ross' comments regarding the division. In any of the other five -- save the AL Central -- the Cubs would be no less than 8 games out of first place.

"Certainly, it's great that no one is running away with the division but ultimately the standard has to be high and you have to build a team and win at every level," Hoyer said. "You can take some solace in that [the weak division] but it ultimately doesn't make me feel any better about our record."

The Cubs hope to get a boost in the clubhouse and on the field when righty Kyle Hendricks (shoulder) returns to a big league mound for the first time in almost 11 months. That will happen at the end of the week.

Additionally, the team expects Cody Bellinger (knee) to be back soon while the offense rides the hot start (8 home runs in 11 games) of second-year infielder/outfielder Christopher Morel. But there may not be many answers or immediate help in a struggling bullpen -- save righty Codi Heuer's (Tommy John) return. At the moment, the team doesn't possess a clear-cut closer after the struggles of Michael Fulmer.

"If I'm being candid, I feel like I've put Rossy in a tough spot," Hoyer said. "That's an area [the pen] we've had so much success with. ... We've done a good job of finding relievers that could come in and find high-leverage innings at a relatively low cost on one-year deals. We've been building bullpens like that for a while. This year that hasn't worked yet. That's on me."

The Cubs are just 2-10 in one-run games, giving some context to an overall positive run differential despite a record well below .500. The team generally plays very good defense but it hasn't made up for other areas which are subpar.

"We're subject to the criticism," Ross said. "We have to be better and play better ... but we've always tried to take care of ourselves and when we're buttoned-up and playing good, clean baseball and executing from pitch to pitch that's the best version of us. We have to get back to that first and then worry about the division as we play better baseball."

Hoyer understands the situation the team is in as Memorial Day approaches.

"It's not early forever," he said. "We need to bank some wins."