Cubs fall to Pirates 7-1, widen gap in NL Central

PITTSBURGH – Under different circumstances, the Cubs’ current two-city road trip to Pittsburgh and St. Louis could have been an opportunity to climb the National League Central standings.

So far, it’s done nothing but create space between the Cubs and the teams directly above them.

After a 7-1 loss to the Pirates on Tuesday, the Cubs slid to a 25-43 record, 3 1/2 games back of the No. 3 Pirates. If it wasn’t already clear that the Cubs would be sellers at the deadline, a pair of losses to the Pirates certainly didn’t make the Cubs look like contenders for the division crown, or even second place.

Until the Cubs’ rotation gets healthy, the team is in for more games like the first two of this four-game series at Pittsburgh.

“I’m tired of talking about the back-end guys saving [the bullpen],” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’ve got to do a better job from the get-go and get ourselves in some ballgames.”

While the Cubs wait for Marcus Stroman (right shoulder inflammation), Drew Smyly (right oblique strain) and Wade Miley (left shoulder strain) to return from the IL – which isn’t imminent — several of their starters have been working through mechanical issues in recent weeks.

Any pitcher, no matter how experienced, can hit a mechanical rut. Former Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel’s 2020 season is a perfect example. The Cubs pulled him from the closing role that year and through behind-the-scenes work turned his season around. He went from posting a 23.63 ERA in his first four outings to not allowing a run in the month of September.

The Cubs are doing something similar with top prospect Caleb Kilian by optioning him to Triple-A.

“Working on things at this level and putting the pressure on yourself is not always the easiest spot to do it,” Ross said after the move Tuesday.

The Cubs, however, don’t have the flexibility to let every young pitcher who is battling mechanical issues address those in the minor leagues, or even in a less prominent role.

Look at rookie Matt Swarmer, who gave up five runs in four innings on Tuesday.

The first two outings of Swarmer’s major-league career this year were quality starts. He held both the Brewers and Cardinals to one run through six innings. But his last three starts have been high-scoring.

First, the Yankees seemed to be anticipating each pitch as it came in, and Swarmer gave up six home runs. Then, Swarmer lost his command against the Padres, walking five walks. And his start against the Padres on Tuesday featured more hard contact and a pair of walks.

“This time I was trying to attack more in the zone because I wanted to go deep in the game,” Swarmer said. “I wanted to go six or seven [innings] but that one [long third] inning kind of hurt.”

The Cubs have already heavily leaned on their pitching depth in Triple-A, including Swarmer and Kilian’s call-ups. And while the club is excited about the performances of prospects like D.J. Herz, who was named the 2021 Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year and has posted a 2.17 ERA in South Bend this season, Herz is still in Single-A.

By necessity, the Cubs’ starters will get more leeway. What other option do they have?

The way Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyersees it, in the long run, positives can still come out of rough outings.

“You want to make sure when you have talented young guys, you give them the runway to play and realize that with that comes some struggles,” Hoyer said last week. “… You have to give them that time in order to allow them to fulfill their potential. At some point, you’re going to have to provide those plate appearances or those innings to learn how to play at this level.”

In the short-run, the Cubs need an abrupt turnaround to salvage this four-game series.

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