3 takeaways from a 3-4 Chicago Cubs road trip, including a sputtering offense and the rotation stepping up

NEW YORK — Ben Brown did not hide the frustration on his face.

The Chicago Cubs rookie right-hander kept the New York Mets hitless through four innings Thursday until the outing unraveled. Brown was in position to work around a leadoff walk and single to start the fifth, retiring the next two hitters. However, back-to-back RBI singles and his fifth walk of the game ended Brown’s day.

Keegan Thompson struck out slugger Pete Alonso with the bases loaded to end the inning, but the bullpen couldn’t hold the lead in the sixth in an eventual 7-6 loss in 11 innings.

It was the Cubs’ fourth walk-off loss of the season, the most in the majors, and they dropped to 1-3 in extra-inning games. Christopher Morel’s three-run homer in the fifth, his second of the series, was the big swing the Cubs lacked too often during their 3-4 road trip to Boston and New York.

The Cubs (19-13) haven’t been much of a threat on the basepaths this year, entering Thursday’s series finale with only 11 stolen bases in the first 31 games. Then they stole six in the loss to the Mets, tying the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Guardians for the most in one game this season. It was the Cubs’ most in a game since June 3, 2008, in San Diego.

As they return to Wrigley Field to play their first division series of the year against the Milwaukee Brewers, here are three big-picture takeaways.

1. The Cubs need more from the offense.

The Cubs were bound at some point to feel the impact of outfielders Cody Bellinger and Seiya Suzuki, arguably their two best hitters, being on the injured list for the last week. Seven of their nine games since Bellinger joined Suzuki on the IL were decided by two runs or fewer, and they’ve scored more than four runs only twice in that span.

The offense’s struggles to produce consistently, leading to some hard-fought games, started shortly before Bellinger and Suzuki were sidelined, but their absence has exacerbated a nearly lineup-wide slump. In the Cubs’ last 13 games dating to April 20, only two hitters — Mike Tauchman and Alexander Canario — have a wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) above 90. That trend wasn’t much different during the seven-game trip.

“Not a lot of pressure for sure,” manager Craig Counsell said after Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Mets. “Just not enough rallies and it’s led to some quiet nights.”

The Cubs need more production from the veterans in the lineup, particularly Ian Happ and Dansby Swanson. Over the previous 12 games entering Thursday, Happ posted a 48 wRC+ with a .161/.278/.194 slash line and a 36.1% strikeout rate. When he has put the ball in play lately, it has been with a 66.7% ground ball rate.

Swanson, who was not in the lineup Thursday for the first time this season, hasn’t fared much better. In that same stretch, he owned a 55 wRC+, .200/.256/.275 slash line and 37.2 K%.

President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer hopes that as the weather continues to warm up, the power will follow for Happ.

“He hasn’t really been pulling the ball in the air with any kind of authority, and I think that’s going to be the difference,” Hoyer said Wednesday. “Yes, you can hit some opposite-field homers at Wrigley in the summer, but ultimately in most ballparks like (Citi Field), if you’re going to hit a homer, you’re going to pull it and that hasn’t been what he’s doing.

“He’s still grinding his at-bats, he still sees pitches, he still gets on base, but the slug hasn’t been there and hopefully that will come as we get going.”

2. The starting pitchers keep stepping up.

The Cubs’ starting pitching depth, considered an organizational strength this season, has been tested early. They entered May with three starters — left-handers Justin Steele (hamstring) and Jordan Wicks (forearm) and right-hander Kyle Hendricks (back) — on the 15-day IL.

The Cubs will discuss Friday whether Steele needs another rehab start at Triple-A Iowa or if he is ready to rejoin the rotation. Wicks’ MRI came back as good as the Cubs hoped, Counsell said this week, and he might not need much more than a minimum IL stint.

Hendricks made his first rehab outing Thursday for Double-A Tennessee, throwing five scoreless innings with seven strikeouts before leaving after a second straight single to begin the sixth hit him on his left foot area. His outing likely was almost done anyway, as he was slated to go about five innings or 60 to 65 pitches.

Hendricks finished with two runs allowed on six hits and no walks, throwing 52 of his 70 pitches for strikes. It’s not yet known how many rehab starts he’ll need before the Cubs feel comfortable activating him.

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Without the trio, the current Cubs rotation — Shota Imanaga, Jameson Taillon, Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski and Brown — has recorded a combined 1.67 ERA in 20 starts.

“We’ve been tested with our depth, and our depth has proved to be quality,” Counsell said. “Over 162 games that’s a really good thing.”

Hoyer made sure to credit the pitching staff as a whole for the first-month performance, though clearly the rotation has set the tone amid the injury hits.

“You kind of have this mentality of thinking, well, when we get these guys back, then this will happen,” Hoyer said, “and the better attitude is assuming you’ll always have some level of injuries or something going on and you just have to play tonight with what you have and then keep doing it. I think we’ve done a great job of that.

“Guys have really stepped up and made the most of the opportunities, so it sounds odd to say we’re probably a better team now than we were then because of those things happening. And that’s the silver lining of injuries: If guys can step up and fill that void well, they gain confidence and then we can kind of change where your team looks. It looks different opening day than now for that reason.”

It’s unreasonable to expect the rotation to continue to carry the load to that level, so the Cubs need to take advantage of these outings and avoid regretting missed opportunities.

3. Pete Crow-Armstrong is locked in.

With the way the rookie outfielder has been hitting, his quality at-bats might force the Cubs to consider keeping him in the majors when Bellinger and Suzuki return.

Since connecting for his first big-league hit on a go-ahead, two-run homer against the Houston Astros on April 25, Crow-Armstrong has been locked in at the plate. He recorded his third multi-RBI performance Thursday with a fielder’s choice that gave the Cubs the lead in the second and an RBI double in the fifth that put them up 5-2.

“I think we all would say and agree that after his first hit, there was a big, deep breath,” Counsell said. “But I don’t know if that explains why (he has had success).

“But I do think when you’re trying to get your first big-league hit and when you do, that’s a big deal. That’s a huge deal. Definitely you do relax a little bit after that, but the other guy is still trying to get you out. They’re not going to make it easy on you.”

Crow-Armstrong is 7-for-24 (.292) with three extra-base hits, two sacrifice hits and seven RBIs. He also tallied his first stolen base Thursday. The Cubs have been encouraged by the hard contact they’ve seen from their top prospect and how he has cut down his strikeouts. After posting a 36.8 K% in 19 plate appearances last year, he’s at 20.8% through 26 plate appearances this season.

It’s a small sample size but an encouraging sign.

“I guess it’s a certain sense of comfort,” Crow-Armstrong said Thursday, “but also starting to get acclimated to this level of baseball and feel familiar with how my body’s feeling and the swings I’m taking. The road trip has been a really good week of work and conversation and I feel like I’m starting to put some things together with help here.”