Cubs still have much work to do in second half
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Cubs manager Dale Sveum, here congratulating closer Kevin Gregg after a victory over the Cardinals, has had to deal with a bullpen issue through most of the season's first half.
Just when the Cubs might have had you reeled in Saturday with a thrilling victory over the Cardinals, along came Sunday.
All of the ingredients that have brewed up a 42-51 record at the all-star break played a part in a 3-hour, 47-minute ESPN extravaganza that featured the Cubs losing 10-6 to St. Louis.
There were a few heaping tablespoonsful of bad bullpen. After Travis Wood survived 52⁄3 innings of 10-hit, 3-run, ball, the bullpen served up 11 hits and 7 runs to the Cardinals in 31⁄3 innings.
There were defensive mistakes, as well, such as first baseman Anthony Rizzo making an ill-advised cutoff and shortstop Starlin Castro again not getting a throw to first base on time.
The word "microcosm of the season" was tossed around a couple of times. But at least manager Dale Sveum wasn't buying the notion that the Cubs' recent 6-3 record somehow equated to "success."
"You never want to say it's a good thing to be eight games under .500," Sveum said before Sunday's game, when the good feeling from Saturday was still in the air.
"But it could be a lot worse, there's no question, especially finishing the first half the way we have. I think over six weeks or longer, we're .500 or a little bit better than that.
"The injuries, the men in scoring position and the bullpen problems we had, that first month led to a lot of tough losses as well as a few not too long ago."
That brings us to the reason the Cubs have their 42-51 record. Even though they've made improvements in some areas, there's just enough bad to outweigh the good on both sides of the ball.
We'll start with the most important part.
Starters and bullpen:
These pitchers have appeared in relief for the Cubs this year: Kameron Loe, Hisanori Takahashi, Alex Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, Carlos Marmol and Shawn Camp.
What these pitchers have in common is that they're no longer on the roster.
While the starting pitching has been more than respectable, the bullpen has undone a lot of that good work.
The starters have an ERA of 3.76 and a WHIP of 1.21, and they are tied for third in the National League in quality starts, with 57. In quality-start games, the starters have an ERA of 2.09.
The bullpen is quite the different story. Cubs relievers are 11-15 with a 4.35 ERA and a WHIP of 1.41. They are 22-for-41 in save opportunities. The Cubs' 19 blown saves are tied with Arizona for worst in the NL, and the save percentage of 54 percent is last in the NL. By contrast, the Pirates have converted 79 percent of their save chances to lead the league.
Even some of the Cubs' more dependable relievers have shown sings of fraying around the edges.
Kevin Gregg, who took the loss Sunday, opened the season 12-for-12 in save chances, is now 17-for-19. In July he has a 9.00 ERA and a WHIP of 2.00.
James Russell, who has established himself as one of the better left-handed setup men in the game, has had a rough go of it in June and July, with a combined 5.40 ERA and a WHIP of 1.67.
Gregg may yet be traded. As for Russell, the all-star break comes at a good time for him. He is fourth in the National League in appearances, at 47, after working in 77 last year.
Alfonso Soriano has heated up, and interestingly enough, he leads the Cubs in home runs (16) and stolen bases (10). Not bad for a 37-year-old.
But as a team, the Cubs haven't been getting enough consistency at the plate. Their batting average with runners in scoring position is just .238. Compare that with the Cardinals, who are batting .337 with runners in scoring position after going 8-for-16 Sunday.
Now that's just plain crazy and probably unsustainable, but the Cardinals always find a way to get it done.
"Core" players Rizzo and Castro have had long stretches in which they've struggled.
Castro has hit well lately, as he has begun to get around on the fastball again, but his season line is .243/.280/.351. Remember, Castro's on-base percentage in his rookie year of 2010 was .347, and it was .341 in 2011.
In the field, Castro has not made an error since committing 2 on June 23 and then getting the next game off. However, he backed up on a ball Sunday night and as a result couldn't throw out a runner at first base.
Rizzo is at .241/.328/.441 with 13 homers and a team-high 54 RBI. But he is batting just .167 in July after batting .231 with 2 homers in June. Rizzo also made that botched cutoff play Sunday as the game got messy in the late innings.
Plays by Rizzo and Castro prompted this from Sveum after Sunday's game: "We do some young things, some of our young guys doing some young things."
This is going to take awhile.
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