CHICAGO -- The Cubs stormed out of the gates this season, building an early cushion that put a division title squarely in their sights. The Cardinals issued a statement on Saturday that the National League Central will very much be a race down the stretch.
The Cubs were dealt a 5-1 loss in Game 2 of a doubleheader against St. Louis at Wrigley Field, where the rival Cardinals picked up two wins on the day. That trimmed Chicago's lead atop the division to 2 1/2 games with two games left in the season series between the clubs, to be played Sunday and Monday.
"Obviously, it's a short season," Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner said. "And when you're playing the other team that you're competing with, those are critical games. But I think we've approached all the games pretty similarly. It's put us in first place to this point."
Chicago cruised to a 13-3 start to this season and had a season-high 5 1/2-game lead atop the division through 17 games played. The Cardinals -- even with their back-loaded schedule due to the COVID-19 issues last month -- have gone 4-4 against the North Siders with all the games being played in Chicago.
“They have good leadership,” Cubs center fielder Ian Happ said. “We never take them for granted.”
Here are three takeaways from Saturday's twin bill:
1. Happ needs more help
Following a day off Friday to rest his ailing right eye -- nicked by a fluke foul ball Thursday in Pittsburgh -- Happ returned to the lineup Saturday.
He homered twice in a 4-2 loss in the opener, drew a walk to lead off the nightcap and accounted for most of the offensive output on the day. The outfielder has a 1.093 OPS through 39 games.
"You feel like he's in every at-bat and is going to do damage," Cubs manager David Ross said. "It is fun. It's fun to have a leadoff guy that is at the top and doing good things."
Behind Happ, Kris Bryant (.543 OPS in 89 plate appearances) and Anthony Rizzo (.787 in 165 PAs) went a combined 0-for-8 in Game 1 before getting a night off their feet in the second tilt, along with Willson Contreras.
Javier Báez (.595 OPS in 159 PAs), meanwhile, saw his struggles continue in a 1-for-6 showing on the day out of the cleanup spot. The shortstop struck out to end the fifth inning, stranding a pair of runners and dropping his slash line to .136/.152/.227 in the 11 games following his two-homer outburst on Aug. 24 in Detroit.
2. Rotation questions remain
With both Tyler Chatwood (right forearm) and José Quintana (left lat) both on the 10-day injured list, Saturday presented a chance for the Cubs to take a look at the layer of depth directly behind the rotation.
The Cubs will need a fifth starter again on Thursday against the Reds, but potentially not again until Sept. 22 against the Pirates due to off-days on Sept. 14 and Sept. 17. Saturday's performances hardly solved the rotation puzzle.
"We've still got to find out what's going on with Q and go from there," Ross said of Quintana, who might resume a throwing program in the coming days.
3. Situational hitting remains problematic
The Cubs entered Saturday with 51 plate appearances with the bases loaded, which was tied for the second-most such opportunities among all Major League lineups.
"The more we load up the bases, the better. I've said that before," Ross reiterated Saturday. "When you get hits in those situations, it's great. We've got to move the baseball in that situation, make something happen. The strikeout kills you, obviously."
The issue was raised after Game 1 on Saturday because the Cubs had the bags full of runners with no outs in the second inning and came away with nothing. That dropped Chicago's season average to .191 (9-for-47) with the bases loaded, when the MLB average was .282 going into Saturday.
The Cubs also finished 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position in the two losses combined, along with going 1-for-26 with runners on base on the day. That included an 0-for-13 showing with runners aboard in Game 2.
"It's not a lack of effort or concentration," Hoerner said. "I mean, there's a positive in that -- just in that we had that many baserunners. One ball falls here or there or a bounce our way or something like that and you might have a different day.”