The Chicago Cubs have been a staple of “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcasts for years, thanks to a star-studded lineup, a national following, and the photogenic ballpark they call home.
Wrigley Field looks as good as ever, and fans still go out in large numbers if the weather is nice and the beer is cold.
But Sunday night’s ESPN game against the Los Angeles Dodgers could be one of the Cubs’ final appearances in 2022 given the way their season goes.
There are several ways to talk about Wrigley before admitting the obvious: The Cubs aren’t ready for prime time.
Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw dominated the split doubleheader opener on Saturday in a 7-0 victory, giving the Cubs their 12th loss in 15 games. He entered the Nightcap seven games under .500 at 9-16.
He has a .344 winning percentage (42-80) since June 14, 2021, from where he left the previous season. Daniel Norris was scheduled to pitch the second game of the doubleheader, making his debut with the Detroit Tigers since August 2, 2020.
A day after Thursday and Friday postponements, the sun finally came out in Wrigley on a chilly Saturday afternoon, so it wasn’t a total loss for a declared crowd of 37,594 – aided by a large contingent of Dodgers fans.
Even Dodger-hating Cubs fans should rejoice at the opportunity to see Kershaw, 34, a future Hall of Famer, defy his age with another impressive performance.
“At some point you feel like the ball will bounce our way or some of those balls will fall,” said manager David Ross, who pointed to the Dodgers legend’s many hard-hitting balls.
Perhaps, but Kershaw improved to 4-0 with five hits in seven shutout innings. He has a 1.00 ERA in his last three starts and is one of only three starters this season with 30 or more strikeouts and three or fewer walks.
Hitting aside, baserunning gaffes by the Cubs were also displayed at the start of the opener.
“Getting out on bases, we can’t do that when you’re facing a good pitcher like that,” Ross said.
After Kershaw picked up Seiya Suzuki from first base to end the first innings, Niko Horner dodged in second base to end the second innings. Arriving on an infield hit, Horner apparently believed the wrong throw went well into a camera and bounced back, entitlement to a free base. Ross said that Horner should have waited for the umpire to call.
“One of those hard lessons,” Ross said.
Drew Smiley hit 4⅓ in the opener, scoring two runs off six hits and four on his return from the mourning list. Command issues in the first put the Cubs in a quick hole, and their only other mistake was a fourth-inning run home run by Austin Barnes.
Ross said that Smiley threw “extremely well”, but Smiley admitted that he “wasn’t fast enough today … and threw a ton of pitch in the first”.
“It’s probably the worst team to face when you’re not being aggressive in the field and attacking,” Smiley said. “They don’t really chase.”
Ross admitted before the game that the Cubs haven’t worked to their potential collectively, but he still believes they can “be a solid pitching staff if we continue on that trajectory.” That’s what we’re walking on.”
But the Cubs can no longer use a short spring training excuse to explain their 5.16 ERA entering the day or a lack of quality starting. Cubs starters had scored five or more innings in only nine of the first 25 games that went into the nightcap. Marcus Strowman (twice) and Kyle Hendrix (thrice) were the only starters to bowl more than five innings.
Justin Steele, who compiled a 9.35 ERA on his last three starts and failed to last more than three innings in any of them, was pushed back to Monday night’s game in San Diego. The Cubs only have four starters on their roster, although Ross said Steele’s move was “a product of the size of our roster.”
Wade Miley said he would throw a bullpen session on Sunday after pitching four scoreless innings on Thursday in a rehab debut for Triple-A Iowa. Miley may be set to join the team on an upcoming trip to San Diego and Arizona.
It won’t save the weather. But at this time, the Cubs can use all possible help.
“It takes a lot to win a game,” Smiley said. “They’re never easy.”
And it’s harder than ever for the Cubs.