Cubs keeping faith that slumbering bats will soon bounce back

May 23rd, 2024

CHICAGO -- There is an inevitable ebb and flow to baseball’s marathon regular season. Right now, the Cubs have remained mired in the ebb, fighting to emerge from a prolonged offensive downturn that has stretched across the better part of the past month.

On Thursday afternoon, the North Siders were dealt a 3-0 loss to the Braves at Wrigley Field, representing the fifth time the Cubs have been blanked in their past 25 games. It marked the fifth loss for Chicago on its seven-game homestand, during which the offensive lull has given the pitching staff little margin for error.

“These are good offensive players,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “You go through stretches like this during a season. It's not fun going through stretches like this as a group. Of course, it's frustrating. But this is a good offensive group, and we'll score runs.”

Evidence along those lines can be found within the first few weeks of this campaign.

Through the Cubs’ first 26 games this season (through April 26), the offense produced a .250/.330/.411 slash line and averaged 5.4 runs per game. Chicago’s 112 wRC+ overall in that period ranked fifth in the National League, while the team’s 152 wRC+ with runners in scoring position was second in the Majors.

On April 27 in Boston, the Cubs were dealt their first shutout of the season in a 17-0 rout at the hands of the Red Sox. Including that game, Chicago carried a .201/.290/.328 slash line and an output of 3.3 runs per game in the 24 games leading up to Thursday’s defeat. In that span, the Cubs had a 80 wRC+ overall (tied for 12th in the NL) and an MLB-low 63 wRC+ with runners in scoring position.

There have been injuries (Cody Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki missed time between April and early May, while Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner recently returned from setbacks) that have contributed. Recently, there has also been a steady stream of strong starting pitching thrown Chicago’s way between the Pittsburgh and Atlanta staffs.

Cubs rookie Michael Busch did not want to use that second factor as an excuse.

“Those are guys that down the road you want to face in October,” Busch said.

It was a slightly different story in the homestand finale against the Braves.

While righty AJ Smith-Shawver is Pipeline’s top-ranked Atlanta prospect, he came into the day with a 6.10 ERA in eight outings for Triple-A Gwinnett this year. In his season debut for the Braves, he touched 99 mph with his fastball, leaned heavily on a changeup and curve and got things started for Atlanta with four scoreless frames.

It did not help matters that the two hardest-hit balls of the day for the Cubs -- both off the bat of Christopher Morel -- found the gloves of Braves outfielders. Morel’s 108.5 mph liner in the first inning was caught by right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. The Cubs third baseman drilled a pitch 102.5 mph to the warning track in left for a flyout in the sixth.

“The balls we did hit hard were either hit in the wrong place or the wrong trajectory,” Counsell said. “Ultimately, we didn't do enough offensively.”

The Cubs finished the day with a 4-for-31 showing at the plate, and one of those hits was a sun-aided single for Suzuki. Ian Happ provided the lone extra-base hit with a two-out double in the sixth, but he did not advance beyond second base. Chicago ended 0-for-3 with RISP and seven runners stranded.

“A lot of factors contribute to it,” Counsell said. “But for the players, I think the answers are just staying in your thing and your process and swinging at the right pitches. That's how you get out of it. And that's what we have to just have faith that we're going to do and will do.”

Busch said that faith comes from the collective track records of the players in the Cubs’ order.

“There's guys up and down the lineup that have proven themselves,” Busch said, “and that have hit really good pitching and they've done a good job. It doesn't make it any easier when you lose one. A loss is a loss, but at the same time, there's guys who consistently have done it and know how to bounce back after a [tough] stretch.”