Rozner: Cubs can quiet nonsense with better baseball

 
 
Updated 5/23/2018 6:50 AM
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  • Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, right, celebrates with manager Joe Maddon, left, in the dugout after closing the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Sunday, May 20, 2018, in Cincinnati.

    Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish, right, celebrates with manager Joe Maddon, left, in the dugout after closing the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Sunday, May 20, 2018, in Cincinnati. Associated Press

It is officially silly season for the Chicago Cubs.

While nonsense swirls about, the team must go about the business of winning the NL Central again.

And though players don't like the inevitable absurdity that accompanies a sluggish start, they can control that by simply playing good baseball.

This is where we remember that the club has won 292 games the last three seasons with three straight NLCS appearances and, oh yeah, a World Series title that pacified the masses for about 15 minutes.

Yes, this season has been frustrating. The Cubs have played plenty of bad baseball, just as they had played to this point a year ago when they had the hangover as a legitimate excuse.

They have not consistently hit with runners in scoring position, something Joe Maddon has bemoaned frequently as they aggravate the manager with a home-run approach when an opposite-field single would win them a game.

But hitting will not determine this team's fate. Starting pitching and defense will, as is nearly always the case.

The Cubs have not caught the ball in 2018 and that hasn't done the staff any favors, though an expensive starting rotation has also been more cold than hot.

Their starting pitching FIP is 21st in baseball, up a couple spots from a week ago when the only teams worse were the likes of the Tigers, Jays, Marlins, Royals, Rangers, Orioles, White Sox and Reds.

Not exactly a list you want to be on, not when you've invested as much as the Cubs have in building a rotation.

In starting pitching WAR, they moved up one spot from a week ago to 22nd with a plus-1.5, when they were a negative WAR beginning last week.

The Cubs were projected by nearly everyone to have a top-five starting staff in 2018, but so far have not been close.

The last week has been considerably better, though a weekend in Cincinnati is going to help your numbers quite a bit.

Minus the World Series exhaustion as an excuse, the Cubs this season have played a lot like they did early last season, appearing distracted and lacking focus in the field.

Still, they went into Tuesday night 6 games over .500 and in third place, 2 games back, similar to a season ago on this date when they were in third place and 2 out of first.

It feels a little bit like the beginning of the Braves' run of 14 straight division titles, when they got off to plenty of slow starts.

In 1992 on this date, Atlanta was 5-under .500 and in fourth place in the West, before they won 98 games and captured the division by 8 games.

In 1993 on this date, the Braves were 4 games out and ended up winning 104 games and took the division on the last day of the season over the 103-win Giants.

The 1994 season was wiped out by the strike, but on this date in 1995 the Braves were in second place in the newly-aligned N.L. East, 5 games over .500 and 3 games out of first.

That team finished 90-54 in a shortened season -- on pace to win 101 games in a full season -- won the division by 21 games, and won the World Series amid a stretch of eight straight years getting to at least the NLCS, with five World Series appearances.

During those early months of those seasons, Braves players would chuckle at the panic in Atlanta, knowing precisely what the outcome would be because they had the starting pitching to ultimately get the job done.

The Cubs don't have Hall of Famers like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz leading their staff, but if the forecasts were correct then the Cubs' rotation should look at lot more like it did this past week than it did the first six weeks of the season.

If that occurs, the Cubs won't have a lot to worry about the next four months, and they'll win the division just as they did the last two years.

And the conversation will again be about whether they can win the World Series in 2018, rather than all the ancillary noise they are growing accustomed to.

But the reality is if the Cubs don't pitch well, and they don't start catching it every day, they'll have to get used to the sound of thunder.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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