CINCINNATI -- Cubs manager Joe Maddon has said it multiple times: The National League as a whole, and the Central in particular, has become much better across the board this year. When Chicago won the World Series three seasons ago, the division landscape was not nearly as daunting.
More evidence of that arrived on Friday night, when new Reds starter Trevor Bauer took the mound opposite Yu Darvish at Great American Ball Park and carved up the Cubs' lineup to send them to a 5-2 loss. Bauer, whom Chicago fans know all too well for his part in that 2016 Fall Classic against Cleveland, is now a member of an intimidating Reds rotation.
"He's good. He's got World Series experience," Maddon said. "He's got really good stuff."
Maybe the Reds will have a run in them yet down the stretch, but the more realistic bet is that Cincinnati develops into a pitching-heavy contender in 2020. That makes it all the more important for this star-laden Cubs team to keep its foot on the gas over the final two months, keeping the Brewers and Cardinals and Reds in the rearview mirror.
That was the whole idea behind swinging the July 31 trade for Nicholas Castellanos, whose first-inning home run off Bauer was his 10th extra-base hit in nine games with the Cubs. Unfortunately for Chicago, that was the lone breakthrough against the right-hander, who was added before the Trade Deadline last month in a three-team blockbuster with the Tribe and Padres.
Over seven innings, Bauer piled up 11 strikeouts and dodged the potential harm of the traffic he encountered between the third and sixth frames. In the sixth, specifically, Cubs second baseman Ian Happ struck out with two outs, stranding runners on the corners. Bauer let out a howl as he left the mound, where he held Chicago to an 0-for-5 showing with runners in scoring position.
And the NL Central-leading Cubs should know that Bauer is not thinking about next year right now. With a rotation also featuring Luis Castillo, Alex Wood, Sonny Gray and Anthony DeSclafani, Cincinnati views this series as a way to jump-start a strong push down the stretch.
"We kind of talked about it as a staff coming into this series," Bauer said, "like, 'Let’s get after them and kind of lead the way.' It was nice to be able to kind of get us back on track. Got a good chance going into the weekend, really like our chances with the matchups we have coming up and our guys going. It's exciting. Looking forward to it."
For his part, Darvish turned in another solid performance.
The Cubs' starter topped out at 97 mph with his fastball and mixed and matched with seven different pitches, according to Statcast. Darvish generated 15 swinging strikes, piled up nine strikeouts, allowed four hits and ended the evening with no walks issued. There was just one problem.
"Three ... homers," Darvish said. "That sucks."
The hot-hitting Aristides Aquino belted a two-run, opposite-field shot off Darvish in the second inning. Eugenio Suarez went deep into the left-field seats in the fourth for a solo shot. Joey Votto followed suit with a one-out solo homer of his own in the sixth.
Those three blasts, combined with a handful of missed chances for the Cubs' lineup, dropped Chicago's record to 22-34 on the road this year. The home white jerseys that hung inside the clubhouse on Thursday remained in place Friday, but the magic wore off.
"He had really good stuff," Maddon said of Darvish. "Home runs hurt us, hurt him tonight, but gosh, he was really good again. Pitch efficient. Exceptional stuff. We got beat by the 2019 homer today. That's just all there was to it. He threw the ball really well."
After the game, reliever Brandon Kintzler spotted the red phone that Happ has been bringing into the dugout for home run celebrations. It has "No Panic" written on a piece of white tape that sticks to the receiver. Kintzler spotted the crowd of reporters and then swiped the phone off a table and sent it crashing to the floor in a fit of faux anger.
Kintzler then picked it up, held it to his ear and said, "We're good."
That appropriately summed up the feeling around the clubhouse, where even in a more difficult division, these Cubs are confident in their ability to capture the division crown. Castellanos has been a spark for the team along those lines, and Maddon recently said the outfielder was "reminding us what hunger looks like."
Maddon was asked if that was something the other players in the room needed.
"When your team has gone to the playoffs four years in a row," said the manager, "it's hard to accuse them of a lack of hunger. What I have seen this year is teams have caught up. That's what I've talked about. It's not the same sashay that we've had maybe a couple years ago to get there. It's tougher.
"Other teams have gotten better. And we've got a pretty big target working on us now."