There is still time for the Chicago Cubs to assert themselves, still a chance to reclaim their spot among the elite teams in baseball. That status seemed preordained three years ago, when they claimed their first championship in more than a century, but it feels perilous now.
The Cubs arrived at Citi Field for a three-game series with the Mets on Tuesday trailing St. Louis by three games in the National League Central. It was their widest divisional deficit since the end of April, and holding a wild card offers little solace: the Cubs lost the wild-card game at home to Colorado last October.
The Cubs have not returned to the World Series since their triumph in Cleveland in 2016, despite a core that is largely unchanged. Their .531 winning percentage through Monday (at 69-61) is the lowest in their five seasons as contenders, and they were one game over .500 since the end of May.
“It’s hard to explain, but we have to find a way to be the best version of ourselves,” said Theo Epstein, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations. “It’s within us. I don’t think April and May was a mirage, but at the same time we can’t just show up and assume that’s who we are, because you are what you do — and the last couple of months haven’t been what we’re looking for.”
Epstein was troubled by the way his team ended last season, when it fumbled away a five-game division lead in September, falling to Milwaukee in a tiebreaker at Wrigley Field. The Cubs returned essentially the same roster, but Epstein said in spring training that the team had to validate that decision.
“If not, then we’re not who we think we are, and we’ll have to make sweeping changes,” he said then. “We’ll find that out this season.”
That approach extends to Manager Joe Maddon, who is working in the last year of his contract. He and the team agreed to wait until this off-season to discuss his status, and Epstein praised Maddon for not making it a distraction.
Asked if he felt more pressure now — personally or as a team — Maddon considered the landscape beyond the Cubs’ universe.
“I don’t know that pressure’s the right word,” he said. “I’m a realist: the other teams have gotten better, too. That’s the primary difference between ’16 and now. Our division’s gotten better; you see other teams ascending, the one right here is really rebounding right now. The Phillies have rebounded. A lot of teams have gotten better. The National League in general is a tough place to play right now.”
True enough, but the Los Angeles Dodgers were 19½ games ahead in the N.L. West through Monday, the Atlanta Braves were 27 games over .500, and the Washington Nationals had won two-thirds of their games since the end of May.
The Cubs’ struggles have been especially acute during road night games, as all three games of this series are scheduled to be. Before Tuesday night, the Cubs were 14-32 in night games on the road. In all other situations, they were 55-29.
On their most recent road trip, the Cubs hung their home white uniforms in their clubhouse for good luck. Yet after winning once, they lost six of their next seven. Even Maddon — famous for clubhouse petting zoos and magicians — is out of gimmicks.
“I don’t have any answers,” he said. “I normally do, but I don’t, because it’s so unusual or awkward. Same team, same methods, same meetings, same kind of work, same conversations. We just haven’t done as well at night on the road. We stay in nice hotels, sleep well. I don’t get it. I really don’t get it.”
The Cubs’ starters have been solid, and closer Craig Kimbrel, who signed a three-year, $43 million deal in June, has converted 10 of his last 11 save opportunities. But the lineup — which has been missing catcher Willson Contreras (hamstring strain) and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (back tightness) — has gotten too reliant on home runs.
Only five teams have scored more runs via the homer than the Cubs. While two of those teams are in first place — the Minnesota Twins and the Houston Astros — Epstein said he would like to see his team score in other ways, too.
“Look, the home run is the best offensive play there is,” he said. “But I think it’s really important to be dynamic and be multidimensional and have the ability to have rallies, especially when you face great pitching. And to get anywhere in a tough division or the postseason, you need to be able to have alternate plans besides just sit and hit home runs. Grinding at-bats, having guys who can make consistent contact and being an on-base driven offense is really important.”
The Cubs hit three home runs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series — a road night game, incidentally — but finally overcame the Indians in the 10th inning with a single, a fly ball that advanced a pinch-runner, an intentional walk, a double, another intentional walk and a single.
Ben Zobrist, who hit the double and was named the most valuable player of that series, has been out since early May as he deals with a divorce. But Zobrist has been taking simulated at-bats and is close to a return. Rizzo and Contreras should be back before long, too.
“I think we have a chance to be really deep,” Epstein said, but that is all it is: a chance. The Cubs have earned that, but their aura of dominance is missing.