Chicago Cubs: Five questions for the stretch run
Were it not for the gross uncertainty that a one-game wildcard playoff presents, the excitement around the 2015 Chicago Cubs would be astronomically higher. For as excited as Cubdom is over the explosive 76-57 record, there seems to be a slight hesitation to that excitement –a hesitation fueled by the uneasy thought that no matter how magical this run may be, it could all end, at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates (probably), quicker than a black cat can run in front of a dugout. Despite it being so on paper, would a Cubs loss in the one game wildcard playoff still be considered a viable “playoff run?” I have to say that right now, September 4, 2015, no, it wouldn’t. It’s pretty clear that the Cubs, and their fans, want more.
As of today, the Cubs enjoy a 7 1/2 game lead over the…Washington Nationals, the familiar San Francisco Giants having dropped seven straight and sitting 8 back. With one month to go, here are five questions for the Cubs stretch run.
Just how good is Jake Arrieta?
Baseball is notoriously fickle, perhaps most of all to pitchers. But seriously, how long does this run go for Jake Arrieta? Was the no-hitter just a taste of the dominance that is to come, or was it the cherry-on-top of his current streak? His second half: 7-1, 1.03 ERA. In his last 14 starts, he’s given up 3 earned runs once, 2 runs three times, 1 run three times, and 0 runs seven times. No matter where you turn, the numbers are ridiculous. He’s been at this for almost two seasons now; it’s starting to look awfully legitimate. The only question left is how much more ridiculous can he get?
Has Javier Baez figured it out?
Small, small, small sample size, but in his first three games since being called back up, Baez is 3-for-9 with a home run, one walk, and one strikeout. The one strikeout is noteworthy despite the small sample given Baez’s dreadful 41% strikeout clip last season. More importantly though is Baez’s approach. His swing remains long, but he looks significantly more comfortable at the plate and seems to a) swing under control when it’s not 2-0 or 3-1, and b) have a game plan at the plate. Two of the three hits have come to the opposite field, and third was a monster home run on an 0-2 pitch. It’s too early to claim him a fixed product, but, man, if he’s got something figured out…
Is Starlin Castro left off the playoff roster?
Everyone agrees this is a results-driven business, but not only is this a real possibility, but it’s a disappointing one; disappointing far beyond Castro’s lackluster season. I’m not shedding any tears for a man making millions to play baseball, but the extent of Castro’s career is 2010-2015 with the Chicago Cubs. 346-464. That’s the Cubs record from 2010-2014. It’s borderline tragic that Castro would suffer through those paltry seasons, with this wave of success rumored to be on the horizon, only to have the wheels fall off right as that success is beginning to be realized. The emergence of Addison Russell and the return of Tommy La Stella put Castro on the outs. Baez’s call-up just puts another piranha in the tank.
Are the kids alright?
This is a two-part question. The first part concerns whether or not the slew of Cubs rookies will hold up and push through the pressure, or is there a proverbial brick wall awaiting them across September? The second part concerns the health of some of those rookies. When does Jorge Soler return? Does Kyle Schwarber’s rib injury become a lingering issue?
You’d like to think the dreaded rookie wall would have hit these guys by now. Almost without exception, they have proven to be adjustment-savvy. Just when it appears they are headed for a prolonged slump, they figure something out. That has to be encouraging.
Do the Cubs make the playoffs?
With a robust 7 1/2 game lead, you’d certainly hope so. The Cubs DNA that flows through fans creates a reluctance to presume anything until the final out is recorded, which is the proper approach, but this would be a major collapse at this point. Another question is whether or not the Cubs will catch the Pittsburgh Pirates. They could mathematically still catch the St. Louis Cardinals, but that would involve an even bigger collapse on the part of the Cardinals, which seems unlikely. With seven games remaining with the Pirates, the 4-game deficit could disappear (or double) quickly.
Extra Credit: Doesn’t Jon Lester’s struggle with throwing to first base feel like something just waiting to be the next Steve Bartman/Alex Gonzalez playoff event?