Kosuke Fukudome had one of the few timely hits for the Cubs during the Cincinnati series (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
The series against Cincinnati might not have gone the way the Cubs were hoping, but it did help to put the Cubs back on track.
Finally the team looked like the one that was expected to be playing coming into the season.
The starting pitching was solid. Matt Garza may have had his worst start of the season, but Ryan Dempster (still not wholly convinced he is back yet) and Casey Coleman pitched well enough to keep Chicago in the game.
It was again the hitting that was suspect.
Big situation hitting all but killed any chance the Cubs had, and they continue to founder as a team in this respect.
They are currently batting .213 with runners in scoring position, next to last in the National League*. They have driven in just 81 runs, again, next to last in the National League.
And the power has been lacking (just 29 home runs, 11 of them from Alfonso Soriano, and nine of his being solo shots). The Cubs are slugging .335 with men on base, limiting their ability to move runners around efficiently.
It was easy to overlook the hitting issues, given how poor the pitching had been to this point. At the same time, no one in the league was hitting and batting averages and runs scored had been at all-time lows.
But the pitching in May has been better, and good enough that the Cubs had a chance to win all but possibly one of those games.
Even the opening game of this series is included in that total, despite surrendering 5 runs to the Reds. The Cubs had four innings in a row where runners were just begging to be driven in.
Chicago just couldnâ€™t get the big hit and create the big inning, something they should have done at least twice. Add in two double plays in those four innings and they basically self-destructed.
But this was the team that was expected at the beginning of the year. The hitting was a question mark, and it was always assumed that if the Cubs could get the hitting, they could compete.
The good news is that they showed they are at least close to Cincinnati based on these three games**.
That also means they arenâ€™t far off from being contenders in the division, something they will have to continue to show over the next three days against St. Louis.
Otherwise the Cubs will resign themselves to being also-rans for the remainder of the year.
Star of the series: Kosuke Fukudome
He may not be doing it with flair, but somehow Kosuke Fukudome was able to be the star of series that didnâ€™t take place in April.
Fukudome went 4-for-11 against the Reds, walking 3 times, and driving in the winning run Saturday, one of the few clutch hits that the Cubs had all series.
May is one of Kosukeâ€™s months, one when he still looks like a productive hitter. He has a career average of .276 when the flowers start to bloom, and so the past three games might just be the final flashes of has been a nice season for the right fielder.
But if this is the continuation of his April, when he was making it hard for Mike Quade to fill out the top of the lineup card (more on that coming), the Cubs will be happily surprised this season.
It isnâ€™t that Fukudome canâ€™t do it. It is just that he hasnâ€™t done it.
The first season, it was attributed to pitchers figuring him out. But with two more seasons in which the same slides took place, there is no denying that pattern that eventually Fukudome fizzles out.
But for right now, the Cubs will thank Kosuke for his .539 Win Probability Added in the three games, and the tally in the good column on Saturday.
Psychological testing on: Starlin Castro
The May results for the Cubs star shortstop havenâ€™t been rosy. Castro is hitting just 2-for-25 in May, a mark that hurts even more because he continues to not be able to draw a walk at the plate.
It feels harsh to lay this all on Quade and his decisions with the batting order, because his hands were tied, given Fukudomeâ€™s fast start.
The Cubs wanted their three hottest hitters at the top of the order, and the rules are funny because they donâ€™t let you put two hitters in the leadoff spot.
But if you wanted to mark the decline of Castro, you need look no further than when Quade began batting him third in the order.
Leading off didnâ€™t appear to be an issue (even though it was called temporary and then held true for eight-straight games) nor hitting second in the lineup.
As soon as Quade tossed Castro in to the third spot, things have gone downhill. It is almost as if Castro has a mental block batting third, requiring him to press harder than normal to get the job done.
Lots of players have had issues with hitting in certain spots over the years. Some of it is mental, some of it is lack of protection when they are moved around***.
All of it is real though, and the results for Castro are too real.
You can see the difference in the way he is hitting the ball.
Through the first month of the season (which does include a few games batting third), he was hitting 23.4 percent line drives and just 19.6 percent fly balls. He was looking to get on base by driving the ball into play, no matter where that way.
Now, moved into the three hole for most of May he is elevating the ball more, decreasing his line drives to just 9.1 percent and hitting the ball on the fly over 36 percent of the time.
He is trying too hard for the big hit, the one that will put multiple runs on the board at once, while all he really needs to do is continue to hit more gap doubles and use his speed to his advantage.
The few times back into his â€śnormalâ€ť spot in the order, Castro seemed back to form for the Cubs.
While this appears to be just a slump, it is also clear that something is messing with his head when he hits lower and also doesnâ€™t have the protection of consistent bats like Darwin Barneyâ€™s or Marlon Byrdâ€™s (at the start of the year) behind him.
The experiment needs to end now. Although if it is anything like the James Russell fiasco, it might take Quade at least another week of Castro hurting to make the change.
Series Record: 1-2
Season Record: 15-18
Projected Record: 64-98****
* It is a good thing that San Diego plays in the National League, or it would be very easy right now to say that the Cubs were the worst team in the league in almost every hitting category. You donâ€™t wish ill will on anyone, but it keeps everyone from being totally despondent when Chicago is at the plate.
** What should scare the Cubs is how good the Reds starting pitching is given how young the pitching is. It is a depth that the Cubs just donâ€™t have right now, and something that was all too clear throughout the beginning of the season when they lost two pitchers on the same day. Yes, it is easy to harp on that again and again, but the Reds rotation just makes you long for the days when the team knew there were arms in the minors ready to come on board. Now Dusty Baker might ruin all of them before they truly ever hit their potential (and there have been arm issues with almost all of them) but the overall quality of what the Cubs will be facing for the next 5 years when they go to the Queen City is tremendous and should have Chicagoâ€™s management a tad bit worried.
*** The mad scientist says to watch this one play out next season after Prince Fielder leaves Milwaukee and the giant investment into Ryan Braun turns into a money pit because he no longer has the big man hitting behind him.
**** Based on runs scored and runs allowed
Tags: Alfonso Soriano, Casey Coleman, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Darwin Barney, Kosuke Fukudome, Marlon Byrd, Matt Garza, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Ryan Dempster, series recap, Starlin Castro