MILWAUKEE -- One series, they look like world-beaters, then in the next they can't get out of their own way. So it goes for the Chicago Cubs this season as they trudge along to a dramatic finish -- one way or another. Either they'll enter October as a dangerous underdog, featuring elite starting pitching, or they'll bow out quietly, just as they did a season ago.
Last year, it was the Milwaukee Brewers who caught them, thanks to a 41-24 second half. This year, the St. Louis Cardinals have been scorching hot since the All-Star break, producing a 34-17 mark. Many have been waiting for the Cubs to go on such a streak of their own. The starts and stops to the season have been maddening, especially for a fan base that expects more. As the Cubs begin a four-game series with the Brewers on Thursday, the question still stands: Where is their streak?
"It's tough to say because I look at our lineups versus their lineups, our pitching staff versus their pitching staff and I feel like we outmatch 90 percent of the teams we play," reliever Steve Cishek said this week. "Hopefully we put it together soon though."
That's something you hear often around baseball. The names the Cubs employ -- at least on paper -- scream elite, or close to it. But when it comes time to play, they haven't produced on any consistent level. Look no further than their home and road splits: 47-24 at home, 28-39 on the road.
"Runs happen when guys start to play better," starter Cole Hamels said with a nod to how obvious that sounds. "It's guys feeling healthy and getting the job done. To do that, everyone has to play their part. You don't have to be perfect, but we have to pick each other up."
The spurts have been even more dramatic, and upside down, of late. After going three months without a road series win, the Cubs have won their past two series away from Wrigley Field and five straight road games overall. In between, they dropped two home series, including getting swept by the Washington Nationals and getting shut out in back-to-back games by the Brewers. Then came a get-well two-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners earlier this week. Back and forth they go, essentially treading water with little movement toward catching the Cardinals -- at least not yet.
"You have to minimize how long it goes the other way," Kyle Schwarber said of losing streaks. "We've done an all right job of that, but we need to execute to go on that run.
"I don't like to say it's going to turn because you have to make it happen. We're not sitting around waiting for it to happen, we're trying to make it happen."
As Schwarber indicated, at least the Cubs have avoided the really bad skids while struggling to put together a really good one. In what seems like a very telling note to the season, the Cubs' longest winning and losing streaks both came months ago. They lost six in a row in the first week of the season, then won seven straight in late April. Since then, it's been back and forth, which has made for nightly hot takes on social media and an overall feeling that the Cubs' 50-49 record over their past 99 games is exactly who they are. That's right, since a 23-7 stretch that established them as a contender, the Cubs have played .500 baseball.
"We're good, but the competition has gotten better over the years," Cishek said. "We all beat up on each other."
That may be true, but to this point, the Cardinals have beaten up on teams just a little bit more than the Cubs have, holding on to a 2½-game lead with a few weeks to go in the regular season. But let's go back to that 23-7 stretch because it's the kind of run the Cubs could use again. A .760 winning percentage in the final 24 games of the season will likely get them where they want to go. So what went right for them then? And can it be repeated?
According to ESPN Stats & Information, over the course of those 30 games from April 8 to May 14, the Cubs pitched better than any team in baseball -- and it wasn't even close. They compiled a 2.29 ERA, nearly a full run lower than the next-best team.
On offense, they were good, but not out-of-this-world good. The Cubs ranked ninth in OPS during that stretch of games, but one offensive statistic may have some meaning: They led the majors in opposite-field hitting. You can bake that into what their manager believes will be the difference down the stretch.
"I cannot be more specific, just the organization of our strike zone," Joe Maddon said. "That's it. ... We pitched well enough, we caught the ball well enough. ... We just have to make it more difficult, to get us out in the strike zone."
If Maddon has said it once, he's said it a thousand times this season: If the Cubs want to be elite, their hitters have to lead the way -- and not just for a few games, like they did recently in New York. There's no better indicator of the Cubs' wacky season than when they beat Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom on back-to-back nights only to come home and get shut out on back-to-back days by the struggling Brewers pitching staff. Maddon was asked why Cubs hitters seem to lock in for a few games, then get away from the approach he wants.
"Sometimes you forget or do something you don't want to do," he said. "But we're getting to the point where we have to do what we want to do."
Another factor that has kept the Cubs from being able to gather momentum for a hot streak -- and die-hard fans won't be surprised by this -- Chicago's hitters don't hit the poorer starters in the league much better than they do top arms. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cubs have a .261 batting average and .814 OPS against starting pitchers who entered the game against them with a 4.00 ERA or higher. Against sub-4.00 ERA hurlers? It's not that different: .258 batting average and .794 OPS. Maddening indeed.
That brings us back to Maddon's notion that the key to their success is not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. The run for him starts there.
"The secret to success now and in the playoffs is going to lie in that box," Maddon said. "Stay in your lane, bro."
But is it really the key? Remember, during the best run the Cubs had this season, they pitched lights out. They have the ability to do so again. As for chasing pitches out of the strike zone, during that 23-7 stretch, the Cubs ranked 20th in baseball, chasing 29% of the time. That number and ranking are only slightly worse since that 30-game stretch, as they've chased at a rate of 30%, which ranks 24th. Neither figure is great, but perhaps the keys to the Cubs' success are on the mound, not at the plate.
Whatever needs to happen, it has to happen fast. Time is running out for the Cubs to avoid a road wild-card game, which is a tough path to a championship. But do they have that elusive stretch of consistent winning in them? Like any playoff contender at this time of year, the Cubs aren't giving up hope.
"Honestly, I don't know why not," Cishek said. "There is nothing that can stop us from having that type of run. We're putting in the work. It just has to show up now."