South Siders, you think the Sox have it bad? You haven’t seen the September 2008 version of the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs entered September with the best record in baseball, a 4.5 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central Division standings, and a good shot to win 100 games for the first time since 1935. The Cubs appeared to be the best team in the National League and arguably the best team in baseball. Then came September, the most dreaded month for Cubs fans, especially when the Cubs are contending for post-season play. The Cubs September schedule was already brutal, but mix in a slumping offense, a huge turn of injury fate for key Cubs pitchers, and the typical unusual Cubs karma of September, and the faith of Chicago Cubs fans is being shaken, stirred, and tested like never before. The last 18 games will be the ride of a lifetime.
The MLB schedule makers have played a cruel joke on the Cubs this season by the looks of the September schedule. The Cubs have 16 road games (9 home games) and 22 of their final 25 games with teams that are 10 games over .500 or better, i.e. the teams that are chasing the Cubs. This is the most difficult schedule for any of the contending teams in baseball for a team that until recently, struggles on the road. The Houston Astros have been the hottest team in baseball since the All-Star break and are quickly moving into wild card contention. Could they be this season’s version of the Colorado Rockies?
The Cubs have played all season in baseball’s best division, the NL Central. The Cubs have had the best record in baseball at key moments of the season. The Brewers have the second best record in the NL behind the Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals have been on the heels of the two division upstarts. And now the surging Astros are putting pressure on all the division leaders with their remarkable run of 12 wins in their last 13 including a home sweep of the Cubs last week. The Cubs still have 3 games to play in Houston, 2 more in St, Louis, 4 games against the New York Mets in Shea Stadium and 3 in Milwaukee to end the season. The schedule couldn’t be any worse for the Cubs until adding strange and unusual injuries and the lack of offense in the last 10 days that is disturbing to say the least.
The schedule withstanding, the Cubs needed to enter September with a healthy roster to close out a run to the NL Central Division title that started on May 11th. The position players appear to be healthy and ready to play, but the pitching is in disarray, due to untimely injuries to staff ace, RHP Carlos Zambrano, RHP Rich Harden, and now RHP Chad Gaudin. Zambrano, who historically fights ailments in August (his worst month of the season) provided Cubs management and fans a scare with a potential rotator cuff injury that cut his last start on Sept. 1st short. After examination and an MRI, it appears the injury is inflammation of the shoulder muscle, a much lesser concern. Zambrano is due to miss a turn in the rotation before making his next start on Sept. 13th in Houston. Harden was being rested for two starts due to a tired arm. Harden repeatedly told reporters that he is not injured and the Cubs are being extra cautious of his workload going into the post-season, but combined with the Zambrano scare and the timing of the precautionary moves, potentially upsets the Cubs rotation for a decisive final series against Milwaukee, or the first series of the post-season.
Adding to the injuries above is the very unusual injury of the glue to the Cubs bullpen, RHP Chad Gaudin. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Gaudin said he bruised his lower back in a fall away from the ballpark, apparently sometime between his Aug. 29 appearance against the [Philadelphia] Phillies and the next morning when he got to the park. Initial medical tests revealed no serious damage, but Gaudin hasn’t been able to pitch since. With Gaudin out, the Cubs bullpen has been shuffled, with LHP Sean Marshall moving into the rotation, RHP Jeff Samardzija moved into middle relief and LHP Neal Cotts the only left-handed pitcher in the bullpen. RHP Bobby Howry has been ineffective and for all intents and purposes, unusable in games, being hit hard virtually the entire season and risks being left off the 25 man playoff roster. The pitching appears to be a mess right in the middle of the most important stretch of the season.
If that doesn’t scare you, how about the inconsistency of the Cubs offense? The Cubs lead the NL in runs scored and are first in nearly every offensive category that matters (batting avg, runs, OBP, OPS, SLG, BB’s) but in their current stretch of losing, their offense has disappeared. In their current 1-8 stretch, the offense has scored 3 or fewer runs 7 times. In their last 8 losses, the Cubs have left 67 men on base, or an average of 8.3 runners per game. They have also hit into a whopping 12 double plays in those 8 games, including 4 in one game against the Astros. The Cubs have also lacked timely hitting, scoring well above their 5.29 runs per game average.
The scenario may seem doom and gloom to the pessimistic Cubs fans, and after 100 years of futility, the disasters of 1969, 1986, and close calls of 1998, 2003, and 2007 who would blame anyone if a bit of cynicism set into Cub Nation. But consider this: The Milwaukee Brewers, the team closest to the Cubs in the standings have picked up exactly 0 games in the standings during the 1-8 stretch. The Astros have won 12 of 13 and are still 8.5 games behind the Cubs. The Cubs are 8.5 games ahead of the 2nd place wild-card team (Philadelphia Phillies). Even Steve Stone said on AM670 The Score this afternoon that the Cubs will make the playoffs, just a question of where. Just my prediction — The Cubs finish the season 13-6 and win 99 games. They win the NL Central Division title for the second year in a row. Anything beyond that — your guess is as good as mine.