Loss highlights needs for first-place Cubs

Rotation putting too much pressure on 'pen, one-dimensional offense issues for club

June 19th, 2021

CHICAGO -- Kris Bryant hustled in from third base and called for the pop-up off the bat of Jesús Sánchez. Cubs catcher José Lobatón drifted in front of home plate, tracking the ball on the same play.

The baseball fell to the grass between them, the Wrigley Field crowd groaned, and that moment summed up a turn-the-page 11-1 defeat to Miami. For the second game in a row, Chicago was on the wrong side of a rout at the hands of the Marlins.

"I don't know what else to do with that one but flush it," Cubs manager David Ross said. "We didn't play very well in any facet of the game, to be honest with you. Hitting, pitching, baserunning, defense. Just not our day."

One thing this loss -- the fifth in six games -- did was highlight two areas that need to be shored up down the stretch for the National League Central leaders, whether via a Trade Deadline deal or through the return of players on the injured list.

1. Rotation depth
In the wake of a three-inning outing, Cubs veteran starter did have one silver lining to take into his upcoming work days.

"The stuff was as good as it's been in a long time," Arrieta said.

When it comes to pitch velocity, that was true. Arrieta averaged 93.1 mph on his sinker, which was his best single-game showing since May 4, 2019 (93.6 mph). That said, the right-hander allowed two homers to Adam Duvall and was out of the game before the fourth, continuing a troubling season-long trend for Chicago.

Arrieta's outing marked the 26th time this season that the Cubs had a starter last fewer than five innings. Going into Saturday, only the Padres (32) and D-backs (30) had more such starts in the NL. It has been a formula that has taxed the bullpen. In the latest loss, utility man Eric Sogard pitched the ninth to help save the relief corps some work.

"I didn't pick them up today," Arrieta said. "That's the most frustrating part of the day for me, is not keeping us in a position where we had a chance to win. The game was pretty much out of hand after the first three innings."

The Cubs do have Adbert Alzolay (blister on right middle finger) primed to come off the 10-day injured list on Monday. Righty Trevor Williams (appendicitis) will be back at some point. Still, targeting rotation help will likely be atop Chicago's list at the July 30 Trade Deadline.

"Starting pitching right now is an obvious area [of need]," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said recently. "I think our guys have competed and battled, but innings are going to be so valuable, and we can't put that much pressure on this bullpen."

2. More versatile offense
A snapshot of the past week of offense for the Cubs arrived in the fourth inning, when Anthony Rizzo drove Pablo López's pitch deep to right field. At the last moment, the ball drifted to the right of the foul pole.

Rizzo returned to the batter's box and struck out.

"We need to kind of do those smaller things," said Sogard. "Work at-bats, work walks, get guys over and kind of do a little small ball, compared to just relying on the home run all the time. We've got to find other ways to win."

Sogard represents one of the Cubs' high-contact bats, but the lineup has been missing Matt Duffy and Nico Hoerner this month. In May, they helped add more reliable contact-based hitters to a lineup that has relied on slugging to overcome the whiffs.

Sogard had the Cubs' lone hit (a flared single to left in the second) in seven innings against López. Chicago's only offensive breakthrough arrived in the eighth, when Jason Heyward drilled a solo homer. That gave the Cubs 12 runs in their past six games -- all via home runs.

"It's not all about exit velo all the time and launch angle," Ross said. "Sometimes it's just about, batting average is still a thing. When you find a way to get a hit, it can be extremely valuable in a lot of scenarios."

Hoerner and Duffy are working their way back from IL stints. David Bote is also on the shelf. As the season marches on, the hope is also that Ian Happ and Heyward can pull themselves out of their current slumps.

"We certainly believe we'll bounce out of it," Sogard said.