NEW YORK – It’s that one quadrant of games that is the thorn in the Cubs’ side, the roadblock that could potentially keep them from the postseason.
As noted by Cubs manager Joe Maddon, a baseball schedule can be broken into four quadrants: home day games, home night games, road day games and road night games.
The 2019 Cubs dominate their opponents at home in their famed Wrigley afternoon specials. They are almost as good at home under the bright lights.
They also play well in road day games, perhaps showing the advantages of all those home road games inside the friendly confines.
The Cubs are a combined 54-29 in those three settings, a pace that would have them battling with the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers for MLB’s best record.
But, unfortunately for the Cubs, there are those pesky road night games.
And since the Cubs are a premier franchise, they come by the dozens.
Those games haven’t often ended well for the Cubbies this year, potentially threatening their 2.5-game wild card lead.
“Road at night stinks,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier this week. “Otherwise, we’re a pretty good ball club.”
For reasons unknown to the team, the Cubs transform into the Royals when they’re in an opponents’ venue at night time.
Including Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Mets at Citi Field, which clinched a sweep, the Cubs are just 18-32 in road night games, which projects to a 58-win season.
They own the worst road winning percentage among teams with a winning record, and are only the winning team more than 10 games under .500 away from home.
With 14 road games left, and 11 at night, the Cubs will need to keep this momentum going if they hope to make the playoffs.
“It’s something we’re all aware of and we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t dramatically turn it around, the quality of our play, not just the results, but the quality of our play on the road,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said earlier this week at Citi Field. “Tighten things up, a little less sloppy, and have a little more engaged at-bats earlier in the game.”
A QUESTION WITH AN ANSWER
There are some questions that even an analytical organization like the Cubs just cannot find an answer for, no matter how much they try.
The Cubs know they’re bad on the road. They don’t try to pretend they’re not.
They hear about it enough, and they know that most road games have ended in disappointment this season.This three-game sweep in Flushing marked the Cubs’ second three-game sweep of the season, and first since April 15-17 against Miami.
Epstein, the architect of three championship teams in Chicago and Boston, said he has no good explanation why the Cubs are so poor on the road. He joked that anyone with an answer can relay that information to a media relations official.
The Cubs even tried packing their white home jerseys for a recent road trip to bring some of those good vibes, but then promptly split a four-game set in Cincinnati.
Making significant changes to pregame routines doesn’t really apply in this scenario since there’s only so much a team can change up preparation wise.
“I don’t know why. This one is kind of difficult to wrap your mind around,” Maddon said regarding the struggles in road night games. “We get our rest, we’re battle tested, we’re young but still veteran in a lot of ways. There’s nothing intimidating about it. All the worries that would normally make you bad on the road don’t apply.”
The numbers reveal that the Cubs’ overall home-road splits are not that significant with the team pitching slightly worse and hitting worse on the road, but there is a notable trend that the night game is when the offense and pitching is at its worst.
The Cubs average 4.42 runs in road night games compared to at least 4.76 runs in the other settings, including 6.23 runs in road day games. They’re allowing 5.3 runs per game in road night games, and no more than four runs in the other settings.
The decline in pitching is much more significant than the hitting splits.
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said the team has stressed to the pitchers to make sure their routines are in line with how they operate at home.
The staff has recommended to pitchers to make sure they don’t stay in their hotel rooms all day. Go out and grab a coffee or a bite to eat.
“We’re concentrating on our routines right now and make sure we get the same amount of work in, home and road, whether our routines are throwing off the mound or stretching as a group, everyone is staying focused on what that is,” Hottovy said. “Honestly, we have a good group on the pitching side and we’ve done a really good job I feel of keeping our routines sound and making sure we’re not trying to do too much and counteract some of the results we’ve had.
“We know the numbers. They don’t lie.”
Cubs center fielder Jason Heyward is now in his fourth year with the team, and this is the first time in his tenure the Cubs have a losing record on the road.
The veteran said it feels like the Cubs keep catching teams at inopportune times on the road, usually when that team is hot. It doesn’t help that the Cubs are a marquee ticket and will draw more opposing fans, although Cubs fans certainly travel well.
“Got to give the game credit,” Heyward told Yahoo Sports. “We keep getting asked these questions about home and road splits, I get it. People are curious or want to talk about it. It’s a reality, and we deal with that as a reality as the guys on this team. We don’t look at it the way you guys look at it. We’re not breaking that down.. … You only have time to go out there and fight the best way you can to try to win all game. We don’t have time to think about splits or momentum. We know what momentum feels like and we try to fight for that every day.”
HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR A CONTENDER
The road woes of the Cubs stand out so much since it could derail the season, and this Cubs team is expected to be a postseason staple.
While these Cubs are not as strong as the Dodgers and Braves in the NL — and you could make the case the Cardinals and Nationals are better— they are still a team with a championship pedigree. Some expected that 2016 championship would result in a run like those Yankees teams of the mid-90s and early-2000s.
Since that title, the Cubs have lost in the NLCS in 2017, lost in the wild card game last year after losing a one-game playoff for the NL Central crown, and are on pace this season for their fewest wins since their resurgence in 2015.
The NL Central is a tougher division than the NL West, but most expected the Cubs were set up to be like the Dodgers, who will soon win their seventh straight division crown and are the NL favorites yet again.
“I’m a realist. Other teams have gotten better too,” Maddon said. “That’s the primary difference between ‘16 and now.”
That’s not to say these Cubs aren’t capable of hoisting a trophy again this season, but as more time passes and other teams pass the Cubs, it creates a debate about where these Cubs stand in the National League moving forward.
If the Cubs underachieve once again while still possessing championship holdovers like Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, it could force Epstein and general manager to make some tough calls considering their tight payroll.
“It’s just a unique organization in a good way. Everyone doesn’t have the luxury of understanding, and lot of people don’t like to see us win. Look at Boston, when they broke their curse, everyone wanted to see them and people don’t want to see them win. Part of it,” Heyward said. “We play on TV every Friday before everyone else, when it comes to home games, it’s just – it’s kind of front and center. That’s a cool thing and we embrace that challenge every day and love that.
“With that comes a big target on your back – and the more you’re seen.”
LIVING THE SWEEP LIFE
The Cubs arrived to Citi Field this week with a daunting task ahead of them: three night games against the Mets, a hot team that is especially tough at Citi Field.
Oh, and they were facing Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom.
Yu Darvish and Javier Baez dazzled Tuesday in a 5-2 win, and the Cubs scored 10 runs off Syndergaard before holding on for dear life in a 10-7 victory.
Thursday proved to be the most impressive effort, with the Cubs beating a Mets team desperate for a win with MLB’s hottest starter on the hill.
Victor Caratini almost single-handedly bested deGrom, hitting a pair of homers, including a three-run shot in the seventh that put the Cubs ahead, 4-1.
“This exemplifies there’s nothing wrong with us. I just don’t know why we had such a difficult time,” Maddon said. “These three check the worst quadrant we have, and moving forward, I’m pretty confident that we will be alright.”
Those games showcased what this Cubs team can be when it plays well, and perhaps can be a springboard for success in future road series.
The Cubs have now won five straight road games, and welcome the Brewers to Wrigley Field on Friday. They lead the Phillies by 2.5 games in the wild card race.
“This whole series was huge for us facing those three guys, and to get the sweep, we all know our road woes,” said Lester, who allowed one run in six innings Thursday. “To do that against those three guys is huge going home.”
If these games are the catalyst, the Cubs could be a hot team with championship experience that no one wants to play in a short series.
But if these games are just the outlier and the road woes continue, it could be a cold and dreary offseason for the Cubs and their fans.
“We’ve been waiting to put it all together and be the best version of ourselves that we all know,” Epstein said before the series started. “We all know, that clubhouse, it has to happen really soon for us to go where want to go. It’s that time of year so it’s on us to make that happen.”
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