The output from the Cubs' offense on Friday night in Cincinnati was concentrated within five plate appearances. There were two solo home runs in the first inning, and then in the ninth, a single followed by two more homers.
Between those bookended outbursts, Chicago's lineup had more than seven innings’ worth of at-bats with no run-scoring breakthroughs. In a 6-5 loss to the Reds, this was yet another look into the feast-or-famine nature of the Cubs' offense this season. It is something the team knows it needs to sort out with October in mind.
"You know the offense is in there," Cubs manager David Ross said. "And I'm tired of saying it, and I think they're probably tired of hearing it -- you want results. That's the bottom line. Yeah, guys keep continuing to fight."
It did not help on Friday that Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks was not at his best in a six-inning showing against the Reds, who tagged him for five runs (two via solo homers by Eugenio Suárez and Jesse Winker). That said, the final score masked a mostly ineffective evening for the North Siders' lineup, which has continued to drift deep into Three True Outcome waters.
The three elements included in that category are home runs, walks and strikeouts. Entering Friday night, the Cubs ranked second in the Majors and first in the National League with 40.5 percent of their plate appearances ending in one of those three outcomes. Only the A’s (40.8 percent) had more.
That is the cost of doing business with a lineup built around patience and power.
"I know for me," Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber said, "I personally have to be able to slow it down some moments and not chase out of the zone or something like that, and be able to pass it on to the next guy. I think these are all learning lessons for us, as we keep going throughout the season."
Schwarber launched an opposite-field solo home run off Reds righty Tyler Mahle in the first inning. Two batters earlier, Anthony Rizzo drove the first pitch he saw from Mahle out to right field for a solo shot that put Chicago on the board.
"Not much," Schwarber said. "It gets a little frustrating, just because we know that we do have the guys in here."
Following Schwarber's home run, the Cubs went a collective 1-for-24 into the ninth inning. Within those two dozen at-bats were 13 strikeouts. The only hit was an eighth-inning single by Ian Happ, who was quickly erased from the basepaths when Rizzo chopped into a double play.
During that stretch, Jason Heyward also drew a pair of walks, but he never advanced beyond first base. Chicago's offensive outage was snapped in the ninth, when Schwarber singled off Robert Stephenson. Willson Contreras and Heyward followed with back-to-back homers, cutting Cincinnati's lead to 6-5.
"You see us in the ninth inning there," Schwarber said, "just with a huge push, trying to keep battling, scratching, fighting, clawing to get this thing back to the all-squared and possibly take the lead."
Reds closer Raisel Iglesias entered with one out, set down David Bote and Victor Caratini in order and sent the Cubs to their third defeat in a row. Chicago dropped to 1-3 on its current road trip, even though the lineup has churned out 10 combined runs in the ninth inning.
The pending return of a healthy Kris Bryant -- the star took five at-bats at the South Bend, Ind., alternate training site on Friday to test his left wrist -- should help for the stretch run. Having core bats like Contreras, Rizzo, Schwarber and Javier Báez continue to get back to their expected levels would be a natural boost, too.
Even so, the strengths and flaws of the Cubs' lineup have been revealed at the season's midpoint.
Chicago is great at seeing pitches, pacing the Majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.19) entering Friday and leading the NL in walks (128). The surplus of pitches has contributed to an inflated strikeout rate (26.6 percent), and the team has been reliant on homers with middle-of-the-pack power production (.408 slugging percentage) overall.
"Listen, we're not where we want to be, totality-wise," Ross said. "But we've still got a long way to go, and some things we can continue to improve on. I think that's the overall message, just keep working.
"We've got a month left. [There’s] a lot of baseball still to be played. and there's a lot of improvement that can be had on our part. I see that every day. So there's no questioning that. The effort, all that's there."
Right-hander Yu Darvish (5-1, 1.70 ERA) is scheduled to take the ball for the Cubs in Game 1 of a doubleheader against the Reds at 3:10 p.m. CT on Saturday at Great American Ball Park. Alec Mills (3-2, 4.55 ERA) is slated to start the nightcap. The games will be aired on Marquee Sports Network and MLB.TV.