It's crunch time for the Cubs.
After Wednesday's game against the Padres, there are 44 games to go. And the Cardinals don't look like they're going to relinquish the National League Central without a fight.
"We can't be happy with anything," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said Wednesday. "It's that time now. It's whatever it takes time. There's a fine line between 'giving it your best shot' and doing whatever it takes, and it's certainly 'whatever it takes time' now.
"We've got to grind through it, we've got to play our best, we've got to play hurt, we've got to play sick. We've put ourselves in a very tough spot and we've got to find a way to get out of it."
The Cubs went 14-5 after the All-Star break and were tied for first on Aug. 6. In their past 12 games, they're 3-9 and have fallen six games behind the Cardinals.
There have been injuries to key personnel such as Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly and Geovany Soto. But there's also a long list of players the Cubs counted on who haven't performed to the expected level. Soto, the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year, was hitting .220, Alfonso Soriano was batting .243, Mike Fontenot .225. Milton Bradley needed a first half to get going.
Last year, the Cubs won 97 games and won their second straight division crown. They've got a lot of ground to make up if they expect to play postseason baseball in 2009. Should fans be disappointed?
"I don't know about the fans," manager Lou Piniella said. "I think when you look at teams, you don't look at what looks good on paper, you look at how it plays on the field and how it functions on the field. We've had a lot of adversity, injury-wise, and that hasn't helped us and we've had some people who haven't had the year they've had in the past. Should they be disappointed? Let them make their own decision."
Piniella has had his projected lineup together for only a few games.
"At the same time, could we be better than what we are?" Piniella asked. "I think we could be better."
Anyone watching recent games would say the Cubs look flat, which is hard to believe at this point in the season with so much at stake. Rich Harden noted it recently. So did Koyie Hill.
"If we could get a few hits with men on base, the energy level would be a lot better," Piniella said. "When you're not doing anything offensively, you look flatter, whether it's our team or any other team."
They don't just seem to be lacking energy at the plate, but there's also been what looks like a lack of hustle on defense.
"You've got to remember this, Wrigley Field is a smaller ballpark that plays into our scheme of things a lot better than these big parks on the road," Piniella said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that we haven't played well in Colorado, we haven't played well in Arizona, we haven't played well in this place. They're all bigger ballparks. You've got to cover more ground. The infields are harder."
The Cubs have struggled, going 2-10 against NL West teams, and they still have four games this weekend in Los Angeles and four more in San Francisco in September.
"Our team basically is a team that when you look at how it's built, it's built for more power," Piniella said. "When you go and play in these bigger ballparks, you don't hit for as much power. There's no coincidence as to why we struggle in these ballparks. You need athleticism, you need more stolen bases -- I think we're last in the National League in stolen bases. Our team has to hit, and when we don't hit, we look flat."
Yes, the Cubs are last in the NL in stolen bases. They're batting .241 with runners in scoring position. The first inning Wednesday was a perfect example of the Cubs' struggles. The first two batters got on base, then Derrek Lee struck out. They still had Padres pitcher Mat Latos on the ropes, but Ramirez grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Hendry isn't looking at potential free agents to figure out where he can find more athleticism. He's not trying to figure out what needs to be done for 2010. There are still 44 games to go.
"We just haven't played up to our capabilities," Hendry said. "It's kind of a mystery to all of us. We've had a lot of guys who have hit their whole lives and they haven't hit. We've done a very poor job all year. It's frustrating. We just haven't got the job done."
It won't get any easier when the Cubs head up Interstate 5 to face the West Division-leading Dodgers. They're running out of time.