What were the expectations for Craig Counsell and the Cubs? Certainly more than this

It isn’t surprising that Brewers fans booed the team’s former manager so enthusiastically the other day.

It is surprising how mediocre Craig Counsell’s new team is.

A third of the way through the season, the Cubs are loitering around the .500 mark, a disappointment given expectations and their decent start. A month ago, they were 17-9. Three weeks later, they began a stretch in which they lost eight of 10 games.


What did I expect? Well, more than this. The first-place Brewers have had turmoil and injuries since Counsell left in the offseason, yet who’s chasing whom in the National League Central?

Brewers fans let him have it when he returned to Milwaukee for the first time not because he bolted to another team and not because he bolted to a division rival, but because he bolted to the rich neighbor 90 miles away. To the club that too often has made the Brewers’ ballpark look like Wrigley Field North, with loyal Cubs fans happy to make the road trip to cheer on their heroes.

Counsell heard the boos Monday because he was so good at his job there. If the Brewers had been a bad or middling team under his direction, no one would have cared about his return. No one boos after saying good riddance. But Counsell took the Brewers to the playoffs five times in nine seasons.

Their fans thought they had something going with the guy who grew up in suburban Milwaukee.

It’s still early — wait, is it? — but Cubs fans surely thought they had something going with the guy who came to Chicago to do the same things he did with the Brewers. In the halcyon days (April), the Cubs were one of the darlings of the national media, the little big-market team that could. A team going places.

But the Cubs forgot how to hit, which, for baseball players, is like forgetting to eat. It has caught up with them. They’ve been especially bad with runners in scoring position. This brings us back to the age-old question: What does a manager do? How is he supposed to turn around hitters’ fortunes? With pep talks? That might work in football, but does it work in baseball?

It’s one of the game’s great mysteries, and no matter if you think a manager can make a hitter hit better by whispering words of encouragement to him, the reality is that the Cubs are paying Counsell $8 million a year to figure it out. Time to do some figuring, Craig. Or some whispering.

Heading into the Cubs’ game in Milwaukee on Wednesday, no one on the roster with at least 38 at-bats was hitting better than .265. That includes veterans Dansby Swanson and Ian Happ.

Thank the baseball gods for Shota Imanaga, Cubs fans. Going into the game, the 30-year-old rookie pitcher was 5-0 with a ridiculous 0.84 ERA. If it weren’t for him, there’d be actual heat on Counsell, instead of impatient toe-tapping. No one is quite sure how Imanaga is doing it, and that includes Imanaga himself. ESPN recently reported that, during the 2023 World Baseball Classic, one anonymous Team USA player said of Team Japan’s Imanaga, “That guy is not very good, but he is unhittable.’’

I’d put that on my headstone.

We’ll find out if what he has done is sustainable. He doesn’t throw hard, but he throws the ball where he wants it to go. That’s precious metal in the big leagues. He’s not the only one pitching well for the Cubs. Ben Brown threw seven hitless innings and struck out 10 in the Cubs’ victory over the Brewers on Tuesday. The day before, Justin Steele threw seven scoreless innings in a loss in Milwaukee. Javier Assad is 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA.

It sure would be nice if the Cubs could hit. While we’re playing fantasy baseball, a halfway decent bullpen would be welcomed, too. The Cubs have 11 blown saves in 23 opportunities. Not good.

The Brewers, meanwhile, are exceeding expectations. They lost Counsell. They traded Corbin Burnes, their best pitcher, in the offseason. Brandon Woodruff won’t pitch this year because of offseason shoulder surgery. Devin Williams, the 2023 NL Reliever of the Year, has stress fractures in his back and might not pitch until after the All-Star break.

Despite it all, the Brewers are doing a lot of things well. They steal bases, and they hit home runs. Their manager is Pat Murphy, who was Counsell’s bench coach. The only way Brewers fans would boo him now is if he left.

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