The Cubs were an extremely popular pick to win a third straight division title in 2009 and why not? They had the National League's best record in '08 with 97 victories, and they did not regress in the offseason. But as early August turns to mid-August, the Cubs are second in the NL Central, fourth in the Wild Card.
In both instances, they are close. Their situation is nothing like hopeless, but their situation is also nothing like leading. What happened here to turn the Cubs' postseason ambitions from promising to precarious?
The Cubs' mishaps occurred in two general categories; injuries and offensive underachievement.
As we speak, the Cubs have two mainstays of their rotation, Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly, on the disabled list. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez is not on the DL, but he has played in only 43 games this season, and is still suffering the after-effects of a dislocated left shoulder. Ramirez received a cortisone shot on Tuesday to reduce inflammation in the shoulder. The Cubs hope to have him back in the lineup within days, but beyond that, Ramirez said that he fully expected to play with pain for the rest of the season.
The Cubs did do some nice work after the All-Star break, going 14-6 to open the second half. But then they lost three of four at Colorado. Now they host the Philadelphia Phillies, defending World Series champions and leaders in the NL East, but losers in eight of their last 11 games before Tuesday night.
"We need to stabilize here at home," manager Lou Piniella said on Tuesday. "We didn't play well in Colorado. We need to stabilize at home and the Phillies are a tough opponent. We got a tough little spell here. Remember, this month we're on the road all the time, just about. It's not the easiest thing in the world to start with, and when you're banged up, it makes it much tougher. If we get through this stretch, I think by the last week of August we should be healthy. And then we're at home a heck of a lot more, where we play a lot better baseball."
The Cubs had a golden opportunity to set the appropriate tone against the Phillies on Tuesday night, in the opener of a three-game series. But it was one of those Cubs games that you've seen before, in which the Cubs turned the exceptionally good into the painful near miss.
Starter Rich Harden flirted with greatness, carrying a perfect game into the sixth inning. The Cubs scored two runs in the meantime, although they had valid opportunities to do more damage than that.
But a walk and a two-run homer by Jimmy Rollins changed the nature of the game from historic triumph to tie. And then, with the game still tied in the eighth, reliever Carlos Marmol walked three and hit one. The game does not forgive that sort of performance. True, the Cubs came back to tie in the ninth against Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge, who has now blown seven saves. But the Cubs lost, 4-3, in the 12th when Ben Francisco homered off Cubs closer Kevin Gregg.
There are no all-purpose excuses at this level, but the degree of difficulty increases dramatically when you can't keep your best team on the field.
"We're missing two pitchers out of our rotation," Piniella said. "Ramirez hasn't been himself, he was only available for a small portion of the Colorado series. Reed Johnson, it seemed when he was healthy and on the roster it seemed we weren't facing left-handed pitching and all of a sudden we're facing left-handed pitching when he's not available.
"I'm not complaining, I'm just stating facts. Believe me, don't view this as a complaint or an excuse."
The rest of the problem cannot fully be explained away by injuries. The Cubs led the NL in runs scored last year, at a healthy 5.31 per game. This year, the Cubs have fallen to 10th in the league in scoring, with 4.41 runs per game.
That was the problem Tuesday night, when the Cubs had 10 hits to three for the Phillies but still lost. Harden was superb, allowing only four men to reach base in seven innings. The Cubs should have been celebrating his sixth straight strong outing. But because he was not properly supported, Harden was forced to say of his own performance: "In the end, it wasn't good enough."
Of necessity, Piniella has juggled the lineup persistently, and has recently been getting production from a top of the order that has Ryan Theriot, Milton Bradley and Derrek Lee, in that order.
"Some teams are fortunate and their lineup works and you stay with it," Piniella said. "Other teams have to try to move things around somewhat. I think the way we're going now with Theriot in the leadoff spot. Bradley's been doing a nice job in the two hole and Lee [batting third]. If I had Ramirez, he'd be hitting fourth.
"Our offense this year has been a little bit of a work in progress. I mean, it really has. We've been challenged a little bit. Hopefully, we've got a good spurt for the rest of the year."
When Piniella uses the phrase "a work in progress" he uses it as a polite form of understatement. A term such as "inadequate" or "disappointing" or "In the name of Ernie Banks and all that is holy, we have to be better than this" would be a workable substitute.
The Cubs, three games back in the Central, three games back in the Wild Card, are in a position that is obviously difficult, but just as obviously not impossible. But they have played their way out of the favorites' role. Maybe there is a partially hidden blessing in this development. Maybe the underdog's role, historically part and parcel of the baseball landscape on the North Side, could this one time prove to be helpful.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.