Bats leaving Cubs with no wiggle room

April 13th, 2021

The lack of overall output by the Cubs' offense is creating a razor-thin margin for error. It increases the importance of every play made in the name of run prevention, given the corresponding issues with run creation.

In the sixth inning of Monday night’s 6-3 loss to the Brewers at American Family Field, shortstop made one of those crucial decisions. With turning in a gem on the mound, Báez made a heads-up play to preserve a slim lead.

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The move worked, too, albeit temporarily.

“That's the thing you want to get out of,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “is feeling like you have to play with such a small margin.”

With the bases loaded and no outs, Báez gloved a grounder from Lorenzo Cain and made a quick throw home with zero hesitation. Catcher Willson Contreras stepped on the plate for the out, keeping the Cubs ahead, 1-0. Had Báez tried to turn a double play, it would have resulted in a tie ballgame.

That small lead was important, as the Cubs' laboring lineup managed just one run -- via a home run -- off Freddy Peralta in his six innings. The right-hander struck out 10 and allowed just two hits, getting the kinds of whiffs that have been prevalent out of the gates this year for the North Siders.

The Cubs added two runs in the ninth, when Báez delivered a double to plate Bryant and Joc Pederson. By that time, the damage had been done. Outside of the Bryant blast, Chicago’s offense went 1-for-24 in the first eight innings.

“I know we got some hits there at the back end of the game,” Ross said. “But it was Kris' home run and an infield single before that. We just got to get the boys going.”

The Cubs' performance dropped their season slash line to .164/.264/.321 with a 65 wRC+ (35 percent below MLB average).

“When the majority of the team is scuffling,” Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said, “everybody wants to be the guy, everybody wants to get a hit and kind of break the cycle and really get the team going. And that pressure -- hitting is contagious one way or the other. I think it's going to turn.”

Historically speaking, the Cubs are bound to improve. Per team historian Ed Hartig, the 49 hits produced by the team through 10 games mark the fewest over any 10-game stretch by the North Siders dating back to 1901. The previous low was 51 hits from Sept. 17-29, 1968.

Hartig also noted that Chicago’s 2.04 strikeouts-to-hits ratio is the highest 10-game ratio for the franchise since 1901. The Cubs had 11 strikeouts to four hits on Monday, and they now have a 28.8-percent strikeout rate on the young season.

Alzolay was keeping pace with Peralta, flashing an overpowering slider after beginning his outing with a fastball-heavy approach. The Cubs righty struck out six, walked one and held the Brewers to a 1-for-15 showing in his first five innings.

Alzolay worked efficiently to that point, logging 10 or fewer pitches in four of his first five frames. He generated GIF-ready swings and let out a few celebratory post-strikeout howls.

“He looked great. I thought he looked really good,” Ross said. “The slider had real depth. He was throwing it backdoor to lefties. The fastball command looked good. It looked like he had the hitters off-balance for most of the game.”

Really, Alzolay only encountered a snag in the sixth, when he loaded the bases with no outs with a walk issued between a pair of singles. Then, following the quick thinking by Báez, Alzolay left the game after 68 pitches.

With the left-handed Daniel Vogelbach looming, Ross wanted lefty Andrew Chafin to take over.

“I had been studying Vogelbach lately a lot,” Alzolay said. “I was ready to get that ball, to finish that inning.”

Alzolay added that he understood Ross’ reasoning, given the situation. Maybe so, but that is where the wheels came off for the Cubs.

Chafin headed to the hill and Milwaukee summoned a pinch-hitter in Luis Urías, who pounced on a pitch for a three-run go-ahead double. The Brewers pounded out six runs before the frame's conclusion.

“I'll take my chances with that matchup,” Ross said. “One of our better relievers just didn't have his best night.”

It was, however, the lack of offense that packed so much pressure into each defensive play and pitch.

“We've got to find ways to put the ball in play,” Ross said, “put the pressure on the defense, make things happen and spark something. … This is too talented of a group to do what we're doing so far.”