MILWAUKEE -- It's time to play another round of "what exactly is going on with the Chicago Cubs' offense?"
The question has popped up again, as they were shut out by the Milwaukee Brewers for the second straight game on Wednesday 1-0. The Cubs lost the series and fell 1.5 games behind Milwaukee for the Central Division lead. The Cubs left nine men on base and were shut down by Jhoulys Chacin one day after Chase Anderson did the same.
"Their guy was really good at keeping us off-balance," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's not overpowering by any means, but he pitches well. Sometimes that gives us a lot of trouble, when a guy can pitch like that."
Soft-tossing pitchers tend to give the Cubs trouble, as do ones they've never seen before, but this isn't about the competition. This is about an offense in transition. The Cubs rank third in the National League in opposite-field hits per game, way up from last season, but they rank 10th in home runs after finishing third in that category a year ago. They don't believe they're sacrificing one for the other, but perhaps in small samples they are.
"Every team laments the same situation," Maddon said. "It's where we're at in this industry. It's an all-or-nothing approach, and we're trying to nurture a different method where you can score runs with singles and not just homers. We're working on it. It showed up a couple times recently. Today it did not happen."
Down 1-0, a home run would not have hurt. Then again, a few opposite-field shots could have helped as well. In one of the stranger stats in recent memory, the Cubs continue to hover at the top of the league in slugging percentage when the bases are empty but languish near the bottom when they have men in scoring position. It's excruciating to watch and hard to understand.
Take the Cubs' fifth inning on Wednesday, for example. Chacin walked the top two hitters in the lineup as he began his third time through the order. Contact hitter Tommy La Stella came to the plate. Earlier in the game, La Stella singled to left and drove a ball to the warning track that way his next time up. But this time, with men on, he struck out. Anthony Rizzo followed with a weak groundout, and the Cubs' best scoring chance ended.
"When we get to the point where we're able to move the baseball and score runners with runners in scoring position consistently, we'll take off," Maddon said.
He has been saying about the same thing since the Cubs fired hitting coach John Mallee after last season. They had more power back then but less overall contact. Now they have less power and some increased contact -- but not with men in scoring position.
"Back-to-back shutouts means we're due for an explosion," Rizzo said with a smirk.
The Cubs are so upside down right now that Maddon didn't want to use former MVP Kris Bryant as a pinch hitter, electing to give him a full day off Wednesday. Instead, a journeyman catcher with 22 career home runs, Chris Gimenez, batted with the Cubs down 1-0 in the ninth inning with first place on the line. Bryant is 0 for his past 15, which is why he wasn't starting.
"He's been struggling a lot," Maddon said of Bryant. "Theoretically, [using Bryant to pinch hit] sounds wonderful, but I thought Gimenez had some good swings today. It's an easy dialogue to try and conjure up, but I was really trying to give him the day off."
For the Cubs' sake, hopefully that means Bryant will be fully refreshed when the Cubs move on to St. Louis for the final leg of their three-team trek through the division. Their chance to hold on to first place slipped away from them after they won Game 1 on Monday, but even in that affair, they did most of their damage on offense in a five-run 11th inning. Acknowledging that, the usually optimistic Maddon understood the consequences of his team's offensive output in the series.
"We almost should be grateful we won one out of three," he said.
As for the effort to transition the offense into a power-hitting attack that also can create runs when the balls don't leave the park, the manager can only cross his fingers and preach patience.
"It's not going to happen overnight," Maddon said.
That much is obvious.