Ain’t no sunshine in rebuilding seasons. The Reds have found that out the hard way over two lonely nights at Wrigley Field this week.
On Monday evening, Reds starter Brandon Finnegan took a no-hitter two outs into the seventh inning. Three batters later, Finnegan was out. The no-hitter was gone, with the shutout and the victory soon following suit.
Then last night, Supposed Innings Eater Alfredo Simon failed to make it out of the first inning, allowing five earned runs, four hits, and three walks while registering just two outs. The post-Simon Reds hurlers didn’t fare much better; as a whole, the pitching staff tallied more walks (10) than hits allowed (eight) in the 9-2 shellacking.
The Reds and Cubs are two National League Central ships passing in the night. At 7-1, Chicago is off to its best start in 21 years, sporting a run differential (plus-36) that is 17 runs better than any other team in the majors. Cincinnati remains a somewhat cute story at 5-3, but the club’s patched-up weakness—chiefly, its undermanned, porous bullpen—are already sprouting leaks. The team is stuck in the same rebuilding muck the Cubbies found themselves in a few years ago.
Meanwhile, the current Cubs—a perennially chic team to casual fans—are full-blown cool again.
Let me make this clear: I’m not leaping onto the Cubs’ bandwagon. You won’t see me strolling down Joe Nuxhall Way rocking a ‘Try not to suck’ T-shirt (though I respect the ingenuity behind that particular thread) or singing the praises of the effervescent Wrigleyville (though I’d be lying if I said anything to the contrary). Plus, the bandwagon is overflowing; after all, the Cubs are the betting favorites to win the World Series.
It wasn’t too long ago the Cubs were calling the Reds their daddies. (Bless you, Pedro Martinez.) Look at the Reds’ record and net run-differential against the North Siders from 2010-14:
2010: 12-4, +49
2011: 11-7, +11
2012: 12-4, +15
2013: 14-5, +30
2014: 11-8, +9
Total: 60-28, +114
In 88 meetings with the Cubs across those five seasons, the Reds—who went to the postseason three times during that span—won 68 percent of the time. The Reds were Lucy; the Cubs were Charlie Brown.
But, 2015 brought new tidings for both sides. The Reds, with most of their core past their prime and/or being sold for parts, lost 13 of their 19 matchups with the 97-win Cubs en route to 98 defeats.
The Cubs, who have gone 107 seasons sans a World Series crown, are ‘cool’ in a collective, modern baseball sense because they’re stocked with power-hitting (a scarce resource in baseball these days) and power-pitching personalities alike—Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Schwarber (get well soon, Schwarbino)—and because they possess a two-headed management team unlike any other in baseball with manager Joe Maddon (half-Confucius, half-Tony LaRussa) and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein (oversaw two World Series as general manager of the Red Sox).
Maddon’s unique methods of motivation and general chicanery would serve as nothing but ammo for the Hot Take Brigade if the man couldn’t mange. But here’s the rub: Joe Cool is also Joe Can Manage. In the eight years prior to Maddon taking over the Tampa Bay Rays, the franchise lost an average of 96.9 games per year. Over the next nine seasons under Maddon’s tutelage, the Rays won an average of 87.1 games, played in the postseason on four occasions, and reached the 2008 World Series.
Factor in Maddon’s immediate impact last season in guiding the inexperienced (but very talented) Cubs within a sniff of 100 wins and the National League Championship Series (when the general consensus was that Chicago was a year away from breaking through) and it comes as no surprise that Maddon’s amusing-yet-supremely-effective style is an attractive one—a 2015 poll revealed that if MLB players could not play for their current skipper, they would want to play for Maddon.
As for Epstein, if his maneuvering from the front office results in yet another World Series title, he will be forever known as one of baseball’s elite decision-makers and curse-breakers, having already played a key role in the Red Sox thwarting 86 seasons of misery with their World Series championship in 2004.
So, for at least the next two to three seasons, the Reds will have to take their beatings from the Cubs and occasionally look on in envy come October—like when Chicago clubs six home runs in a National League Divisional Series game against the mutually-reviled St. Louis Cardinals.
But there will come a time when the Cubs’ shine has worn off and the Reds, reenergized by their deep pitching reserves, will gain ground. The Reds’ team shop may even sell T-shirts of someone like current top pitching prospect Cody Reed and his distinctive eyewear to market their own version of ‘cool.’
Until then, there’s going to be plenty of darkness on game days.