Reeling Cubs prepare for their final stand on shaky ground

Joe Maddon and the Cubs have a tenuous lead in the NL Central. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

By Aug. 1, it seemed as if the Chicago Cubs finally put the frustrations that plagued them all season in the rearview mirror. After struggling to keep their head above the waters of .500 for most of the year, the defending World Series champions finally took back the spot that seemed to be rightfully theirs atop the National League Central.

While they have had at least a share of the NL Central lead every day since July 26, the Cubs’ stay atop the division still feels more like bookmark than re-establishing full control of a division they won by a massive 17-game margin just a year ago. A season after that dominant, 103-win wire-to-wire breakout that culminated with the end of the longest drought in championship history, the Cubs just don’t look like the behemoth everyone expected. Despite wearing the same clothes and maintaining a stunningly intact roster, the title defense of the Cubs has often been little more than an act of survival.

In many regards, the best fortune the Cubs have had all year is their geographical affiliation. In no other division would they be within three games of first place, let alone possessing the two-game lead they are currently clinging to. It is a lead that has been created as much by a favorable environment as by any excellence on part of the Cubs themselves. Since winning 14 of 17 games between July 14 and Aug. 1, when they pulled off a seven-game turnaround in the standings to go from 5.5 games behind in the NL Central a 2.5 game lead, they have again fallen back into their old ways — and thus left the door open to surrender the division once again.

That lead is constantly under siege because the Cubs simply cannot find a consistent groove. Nearly every part of the team has taken its turn in being the problem. In the first half, the pitching staff was unable to carry the load. The Cubs attempted to remedy the situation by adding Jose Quintana and Justin Wilson, and they were encouraged by improved outings from Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta midseason.

Kyle Schwarber went from playoff hero to struggling to stay in the lineup. Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

At other points, a chronically up-and-down lineup has been to blame as well. Although Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez and Kris Bryant have all had standout moments, none has been the day in, day out performer he was in the past at any point this season. The struggles of Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist, along with the inability to find a suitable replacement for what Dexter Fowler brought atop the lineup a year ago, have rendered the game’s most pounding offense one of its most feast or famine outlets a year later.

The man stuck in the middle of this uniquely positioned mess is Joe Maddon, who has had without a doubt the most frustrating job in all of baseball this year. He is guiding a team that provides the appearance of comfort atop a division with none of the standard luxuries that come along with it. It is a maximum effort job to guide this team, one that requires a constant search for answers and remedies, along with the understandable notion that it is just about getting the postseason, where any and everything is possible.

Even Maddon’s tone regarding the position he finds his team in is more that of a man who is looking to find a way to make up ground rather than hold it. In discussing his team’s current position this past weekend, he referred to the Cubs as being “definitely in the hunt,” which is far from the type of confidence expected of a team that could be potentially paired against the league’s first division clincher, the Washington Nationals, in a forthcoming Division Series matchup soon.

As things currently stand today, with a little over two weeks remaining in the regular season, Chicago’s current course is headed disturbingly short of anything that involves life beyond the first day of October. Thus far in September, only the free-falling Dodgers have struggled more at the plate than Maddon’s team. Entering play Tuesday, the Cubs are in the bottom two of the National League in runs scored, team batting average, on-base percentage and total hits in September, a month in which they currently carry the worst record of any NL Central team.

Jon Lester is having his worst season since joining the Cubs. Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

However, unlike in months past there is no offsetting success elsewhere carrying the weight. The team’s 5.52 ERA on the month is fifth worst in the league, only surpassed by (again) the Dodgers, Giants, Braves and Mets, the latter of which they are preparing to do battle with in what could be a slugfest of epic proportions — if, you know, their offense was doing anything that could be considered inspirational in the least.

This week’s series hosting the Mets is an all-important one because the weekend to come brings a familiar rival trending decisively up as the Cubs’ fingers are slipping closer and closer off the edge. The St. Louis Cardinals, whose own dedication to inconsistency has helped to facilitate the Cubs’ continued survival atop the division, are trending upward as their final trip to Wrigley Field nears this weekend. Winners of eight of their last 10 games, St. Louis is leading the NL in run differential over the last week and represent a dangerous opponent with a plenty of incentive to bury its most intense rivals.

As a matter of fact, 10 of Chicago’s final 18 games are against its chief competition for the NL Central championship in the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, with eight of those games coming consecutively on the road.

Regardless of how poorly they have collectively performed of late, the upcoming weeks are not impossible for the Cubs to navigate. Survival to reach the postseason will not require them to channel a form that they have been incapable of capturing for the first five months of the year — rather, it will just take them becoming the team they have proven capable of being on occasion, just far too briefly. They are a team that has posted double-digit run performances six times in the last month, but the Cubs have also allowed 10 or more runs four times as well. What is most pertinent is that they snap out of the immediate haze they are performing in, where save for an 8-2 victory last Thursday, they have managed a grand total of seven runs in the last eight days.

Again, the expectations of the Cubs repeating what they accomplished last year is a ship that has long since left the shore and struck an iceberg. But all is still not lost yet for this year’s club, as they could at the very least save face by making their third consecutive appearance in the postseason. That, of course, would at least give them a fighter’s chance to save face on the year. However, given the way things are currently turning out, it may not be a fight they are long for … if they can avoid the TKO the upcoming weeks could bring.

Matt Whitener is St. Louis-based writer, radio host and 12-6 curveball enthusiast. He has been covering Major League Baseball since 2010, and dabbles in WWE, NBA and other odd jobs as well. Follow Matt on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.

Yardbarker: MLB

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