CHICAGO – It’s early, but the 2014 season certainly has a familiar feel.
The Chicago Cubs got another strong performance from their starter, this time Jeff Samardzija, who went seven strong Saturday, giving up just two runs while striking out eight and walking three (one intentionally). While the Cubs were able to put up 10 hits against Philadelphia Phillies starter Cliff Lee, they failed to come through when it mattered most, going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and stranding 10 men on base.
The 2-0 loss to the Phillies was the Cubs' second shutout in five games as they fell to 1-4 on the season. After hitting .218 with runners in scoring position last season, the Cubs are off to an even worse start this season, hitting 4-for-40 in those situations.
Manager Rick Renteria had no explanation for the Cubs' early season woes with runners on.
"I don’t know if it’s a mindset. I do think you have to be relaxed and know that the pitcher’s on the ropes a little bit," Renteria said. "It’s something that you talk about and see if it starts to take hold, the understanding of those particular types of situations, so that guys can be a little bit more relaxed."
The Cubs are hardly a great hitting team overall -- batting just .216 thus far -- but their inability to come up with the big hit is quite remarkable. Add in the facts that they’re slugging just .280 and that nine of their 10 hits Saturday were singles, and it becomes a little clearer why this team has scored just eight runs in its first five games.
"We had the top of the order get on base quite a few times," Renteria said. "We hit into quite a few double plays. Just haven’t gotten the big hit. Some of the guys are starting to come to life today, but All in all, I thought we played a relatively clean game. Jeff pitched great, minimized the damage. The relief corps did a great job minimizing the damage, and we just weren’t able to put any runs on the board."
Renteria was right that there was plenty to be happy with, first and foremost being Samardzija, who delivered his second consecutive strong performance. Samardzija had only three strikeouts on Opening Day but was back to his usual self Saturday, whiffing eight batters, including five of the final six he faced.
Samardzija said the strikeouts coming later in the game is part of his plan this season, as he’s working to be more efficient in the early innings.
"When we’re attacking early in the zone, it gets them a little more aggressive, which in turn means later in the game you can go to your secondary pitches and getting swings and misses or easy ground balls," Samardzija said. "It’s not always going to be that way, but the first two games [were] pretty positive with the way it’s gone. We’ll keep looking to improve because there’s still some things we can do better."
The other positives on the day were Emilio Bonifacio staying hot with a 2-for-5 day, Starlin Castro breaking out of his early season, 2-for-17 slump with a three-hit game and Anthony Rizzo managing to get two hits off one of the league’s best lefties in Lee.
The veteran Samardzija seemed unfazed by the lack of run support to this point.
"I see these guys working every day. I know what they’re doing," Samardzija said. "If it were a different situation, if I thought these guys were being lazy or this or that, obviously it’d be different. But these guys come to work every day doing everything we can. It’s early in the season. We’re gonna keep going, keep pushing and figure this out."
To a man, the Cubs insist they aren’t pressing, and only five games into the season, they shouldn’t be. While nobody is happy with the lack of scoring, the clubhouse appears confident, and, as reporters walked away from Mike Olt's locker, the rookie third baseman said, with conviction, "It’ll happen," referring to the hits coming when it matters most.
But until it does happen, the story will continue to be the Cubs' inability to come through in the big moment. Renteria has no plans to stop preaching to his players to relax in those situations.
"It’s OK if it’s a broken record," Renteria said. "You keep repeating it, you keep talking about it. You never stop talking about it until you start to understand it and get a good feel for it. A lot of it’s just getting in more games. I know we didn’t come up with a victory today, but, for me, it was a ballgame we were in the whole way."