How Cubs weathered odyssey of 30 games in 30-day stretch
The Chicago Cubs did not wander in the desert for 30 days. It only seems they did.
But they did finish a journey of 29 games in 30 days -- without a real day off -- in the desert, finishing with a 9-0 defeat to the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix.
After flying overnight, the Cubs enjoyed an off-day Thursday, their first since Aug. 20.
On Aug. 19, the Cubs were 71-52 after falling 2-1 in 11 innings at Pittsburgh. The Cubs began their 30-day slog on Aug. 21 with a 2-1 loss at Detroit, leaving them 2½ games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and 3 ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.
At the time, the Cubs were embarking on what they thought would be a stretch of 23 games in 23 days, with a scheduled off-day on Aug 30 being used for a makeup game in Atlanta.
The Cubs were rained out on Sept. 7 in Washington, setting up a doubleheader the next day, when the Nationals swept both games. The two teams were rained out on Sept. 9, forcing a makeup game on Sept. 13, wiping out a scheduled off-day between two series at Wrigley Field.
When it was all over, the Cubs finished the 30 days more than respectably:
They went 18-11 in the 29 games, outscoring their opponents 124-101 and holding a 2½-game lead over the Brewers and 5½ over the Cardinals.
The players seemed to take the schedule in stride even though it was hardly ideal, beginning in the dog days of August.
TV play-by-play voice Len Kasper was with the Cubs every step of the way, riding the team buses and planes.
"I think everyone knew going into this stretch it wasn't going to be easy, and it was the return trip to Washington that seemed be particularly frustrating, considering it took away what would have been a key off-day," Kasper wrote in an email exchange. "But then when the Cubs won that game, the whole trip might have actually been a blessing in disguise because they've played great baseball since.
"The fatigue factor in baseball is so much more about the mental side than the physical. There is an intense focus involved with every pitch that cannot really be seen as much as experienced, and players will tell you that a day at the park requires a lot of energy. So to do this for 30 consecutive days without any respite is a big challenge."
There were several notable developments packed into the 30 days:
• Pitcher Yu Darvish weighed in on talk of his mental strength on Aug. 23. Darvish hasn't pitched since May because of triceps and elbow problems. He wound up undergoing a "cleanup" surgery last week. Also on Aug. 23, Cole Hamels tossed the Cubs' first, and so far only, complete game of the season.
• David Bote hit a walk-off home run on Aug. 24 against the Reds. It came 12 days after his Sunday Night Baseball walk-off winner against the Nationals.
• Maddon had to address his job status on Aug. 28 after a USA Today report indicated he might be on the hot seat if the Cubs don't make a strong postseason run.
"I don't understand it," Maddon said at the time. "It's very uninteresting to me. I'm under contract. I'm very happy with what I'm doing. When the time is appropriate, I'm sure we'll discuss it further. I really don't understand that."
• The Cubs lost two of three at Milwaukee beginning on Labor Day, when Hamels questioned whether Cubs-Brewers was a "rivalry" because Miller Park was filled with so many Cubs fans. Later in that series, Maddon said injured closer Brandon Morrow "barely" had enough time to pitch again in the regular season. This week, the Cubs shut Morrow down for the rest of 2018.
• On Sept. 11, Maddon said the key to getting through the tough stretch was to "keep the switch on." The Cubs beat the Brewers at home that night but wound up losing two of three in that series as well.
• The Cubs suffered yet another blow to the bullpen on Sept. 13 in the makeup game at Washington. Pedro Strop strained his left hamstring running to first base, and it looked like he might be out for the rest of the regular season. But just this week, Strop said he was not ruling out a return, especially in the wake of Morrow being shut down.
Of course, there is still much work to do, beginning with this weekend's three-game series against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. The good news for the Cubs is that they play the remainder of their games in Chicago: the three against the Sox followed by four against the Pirates and three against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs should be feeling good about themselves after weathering the tough part of their schedule. But history does provide for some caution.
Back in 2004, hurricanes affected the schedules of both the Cubs and the then-Florida Marlins. The Marlins did not play from Sept. 3-6, but from Sept. 7-Oct. 3, they played every day, squeezing 30 games into 27 days, including three doubleheaders. They played the Montreal Expos at the White Sox's U.S. Cellular Field Sept. 13-14 before flying to Florida for a doubleheader the next day. During that stretch, the Marlins went 13-17.
The Cubs in 2004 didn't play from Sept. 2-5. From Sept. 10-Oct. 3, they played 26 games in 24 days. Although they went 15-11 overall during that stretch, they collapsed over the final nine days, going 2-7 and frittering away a playoff berth.
Kasper was doing games for the Marlins that year before joining the Cubs for the 2005 season.
"The 2004 season does come to mind," he said. "I recall the Marlins playing well right up until they had that series vs. Montreal at the White Sox park. The Marlins won both, but then the teams had to fly to Miami for a doubleheader the next night and the Expos swept, and that kind of signaled the end.
"The travel and uncertainty with the hurricane really took its toll on not only the Marlins, but likely the Cubs as well."