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Pirates 8, Cubs 4: Are The Wheels Falling Off?

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That... wasn't good.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

For a brief moment Friday night, it looked like the Cubs' early-season magic had returned.

Trailing 3-1 in the sixth, the Cubs got a two-run homer from Miguel Montero to tie the game. That seemed significant for more than just the tie score: Montero came into the game hitting .197 and was 2-for-16 over his previous eight games.

Then in the seventh, Anthony Rizzo crushed this massive homer [VIDEO] to deep right-center field. The Cubs led 4-3 and needed to get just nine more outs.

Jake Arrieta had allowed a pair of homers in the second inning, a solo shot by David Freese and two-run blast by Sean Rodriguez, to give the Bucs a 3-0 lead, the second time this year he'd allowed a pair of homers in a game (the other: this one, if you insist on knowing). But he settled down after that. He had thrown only 75 pitches through six innings, with no walks, so there was no question he'd start the seventh.

A walk and two singles later, the game was tied and Jake was gone, relieved by Travis Wood. I'll spare you details of the carnage, but four Pirates runs scored in all in that inning, three charged to Jake. The six earned runs he allowed were his most in almost two years (August 28, 2014, if you must know).

Trevor Cahill got touched up for a final Bucs run and so the Cubs lost to the Pirates 8-4, their fourth loss in a row and eighth defeat in their last nine games.

The question posed in the headline to this recap is only half-serious. Could a team that was this good for 67 games (peaking 27 games over .500 at 47-20) really be this bad for three weeks (5-14, the worst N.L. record since then)? The Cubs have lost series during this time to their biggest rival, to two serious playoff contenders from the N.L. East and to one of the worst teams in the National League. The Cubs' lead in the N.L. Central stands at 7½ games, the smallest lead since June 1.

There is one recent World Series winner who had a similar trajectory to this year's Cubs. The 2014 Giants went out on an early-season run similar to the 2016 Cubs. At one point they were 43-21 and leading the N.L. West by 10 games. They then lost 21 of their next 30 (!) and eventually fell out of first place, and had losing months in both June and July. They made the postseason as a wild card, finishing six games out of first place at 88-74.

I'd certainly hope this year's Cubs don't have that big a fall. But it has happened, and recently. That Giants team got hot at the time it needed to and won the World Series. We'd take that, of course.

Back to the current woes. Yes, there have been injuries, particularly the one to Dexter Fowler (the Cubs are just 9-16 when he doesn't start), but that doesn't really explain this tailspin. There have been poor pitching performances by both starters and relievers, offensive failure (during this 5-14 stretch, the Cubs have been outscored 111-85, and taking two double-digit Cubs offensive outbursts out of that, the deficit in the rest of those games is 99-64) and in general, the team simply looks like they've lost whatever they had over the first 67 games that made them so good.

I mean, how do you explain this?

As you know, Jake wasn't that good just for nine starts this year -- he was that good, or better, for more than half of the 2015 season. How does that just vanish? Those "last nine starts" numbers are roughly equivalent to what Dan Straily has done for the Reds this year, and really, the only comparison between Straily and Jake, up to now, is that they both wear beards.

Here's one bit of potential good news: since he was dropped to sixth in the lineup, Jason Heyward is 7-for-18 (.389) with a double, a triple, four walks and no strikeouts. Small sample size, of course, but this batting-order move just might work. The triple [VIDEO] was an impressive hit; hopefully, some of the power he showed last year (.439 SLG, 33 doubles, four triples, 13 home runs) will begin showing up. His SLG this year is currently more than 100 points below that at .334. Heyward ranks 163rd of 168 qualified hitters this year in slugging percentage, just ahead of Alcides Escobar. That isn't good. Getting Heyward going offensively, with the return of Fowler, would be a huge boost for this club.

I wanted you to know that I'm not deliberately avoiding embedding video highlights in recent recaps, including this one. There seem to be fewer embeddable videos via MLB.com recently; for this one, there weren't any, and I would have at least liked to embed the Rizzo and Montero homers (links above). Hopefully, this will change after the break.

Cubs walk watch: Haven't done this in a while, but since the team walked six times in Friday's loss, I figured I'd update you. Season total: 389, or 4.29 per game. Pace: 695, still on pace to break the team record of 650, set in 1975.

The All-Star break couldn't come at a better time for this weary bunch of Cubs, who will play the 23rd of 24 consecutive games without an off day Saturday night in Pittsburgh. Jon Lester goes for the Cubs and Chad Kuhl for the Pirates.