DENVER -- Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon thinks he knows why his team is off to a mediocre start and figures there are a couple of things the team can do better on the field once his players get some rest.
"I sense sleep deprivation more than anything," Maddon said before the team dropped to 17-17 with a 3-0 loss Wednesday to the Colorado Rockies. "Sleep deprivation has a lot to do with it. Right from the beginning of the year our schedule has been awkward. No one has had a chance to settle in."
In the span of eight days, recently, the Cubs played two Sunday night affairs followed by overnight travel plus a 13-inning and 18-inning game. The latter contest came Sunday, forcing the Cubs to land in Denver at 5 a.m. local time. After a 10-4 loss on Tuesday afternoon, which dropped Chicago's record to .500, catcher Miguel Montero had some harsh words about the reigning champions.
"The reality is we can't take anything for granted and right now, I feel like we do," Montero said. "Honestly we're just not playing at our highest level. We have to shake it up, wake up. This will be a good wake-up call for us. We either come to play the right way or we're going to have a short season."
Maddon didn't quite agree with Montero's assessment, citing two specific areas of his team's play as the root of their problems.
"I don't think anyone is taking anything for granted," Maddon said. "I love the word expectations, I do, but on the flip side of that it's going to be a different path this year. It is. It just has to be. To this point we haven't pitched nearly as well, as starters. The biggest thing for me is defense. We haven't caught the ball with the regularity that we normally do. Those were our bedrocks of our performance."
Maddon is referencing the Cubs' 25-6 start in 2016 on the way to breaking their 108-year championship drought. He's said several times this year it simply wasn't realistic to think the Cubs would do that again in April and May. He's been proved right.
"As our starters get their feet back on the ground, pitching-wise, and we start catching the ball -- which are interrelated -- that to me is where the turnaround [happens]," Maddon said.
The Cubs rank third in pitching in the National League, but that number is deceptive. Their bullpen has pitched so many innings it's helping their overall ERA (3.89), but the starting staff ranks ninth in the NL with a 4.62 ERA going into Wednesday's game.
"That's why we did as well as we did in '15 and '16," Maddon continued. "The hitting got a lot of play last year, but it was the pitching that was so good. There became this run differential based on this otherworldly type of pitching. We may not pitch that good but we're going to pitch better than we have to this point."
The Cubs are without a fifth starter, as Brett Anderson struggled then got hurt. Former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta has a 5.35 ERA with a diminishing fastball. John Lackey is 38 years old and off to a slow start, though he pitched a gem at Coors Field on Tuesday night. Then there's the defense, which led the league in most regular and sabermetric categories last season. It's been far from stellar this season.
"We're still going to play really good defense, and it's going to be good enough [to win]," Maddon said. "We just have to get back to the levels that we are capable of. That's what I think."
It starts with better weather -- the Cubs were rained out once and delayed once in Colorado -- and better travel. Then Maddon thinks the Cubs will return to their elite status in baseball.
"It's not easy," he said. "We just have to get back to a little bit of routine, get our game back together completely and we'll be fine.
"To be in the position that we're in without playing even close to our best baseball, it's kind of OK."