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Cubs can salvage season after early struggles

North Siders' talent, tenacity, experience gives them leg up in NL Central
MLB.com

The Cubs' starting pitching is struggling. So is their defense, which doesn't ease the woes of that starting pitching.

Offense? What offense?

View Full Game Coverage

The Cubs' starting pitching is struggling. So is their defense, which doesn't ease the woes of that starting pitching.

Offense? What offense?

View Full Game Coverage

Not only that, but before the Cubs beat the Cardinals on Friday, 3-2, at Wrigley Field, they had dropped six consecutive games after a West Coast trip that left only fans of the Dodgers and the Padres smiling.

Still, you've got to like the odds of the Cubs surging down the stretch, winning their division and becoming more than a tease during an attempt to defend their 2016 World Series championship.

Let's just say manager Joe Maddon has it about right.

"I have a lot of faith in these guys, and everything's fine," Maddon told reporters after the Cubs managed just three hits Wednesday night in San Diego, where they lost, 2-1, before Thursday's off-day en route to a nine-game homestand this weekend. "Once we start hitting, I mean, we just didn't hit this whole series [against the Padres] or even the whole trip. Nine runs in six games, it makes it difficult. I think it's an anomaly moment for us offensively, and we'll just keep working at it."

Good, because the Cubs eventually will prove everything we see now in their world is a mirage.

About that mirage ...

Beyond Jon Lester, the rest of the Cubs' starting rotation hasn't pitched with consistency. Examples range from Jake Arrieta, operating far from his NL Cy Young Award-winning self of two years ago, to the struggles of whoever is in the No. 5 slot. Even Lester was rocked on Sunday at Dodger Stadium, where he allowed six runs in 3 1/3 innings.

Video: CHC@SD: Arrieta fires six innings of one-run ball

What a contrast. While the Cubs spent last season winning their first World Series in 108 years with the best ERA in the Major Leagues at 3.15, they are now 12th at 4.04. Lester and Kyle Hendricks finished second and third, respectively, in the 2016 NL Cy Young Award balloting, but neither is headed for such a distinction at the moment.

As for offense, few Cubs hitters not named Kris Bryant have been impressive beyond spurts. With a team batting average of .235 that ranks 26th in the Major Leagues, the North Siders show signs of missing Dexter Fowler, their sparkplug leadoff hitter. He signed as a free agent during the offseason with the same Cardinals who opened that three-game series Friday at Wrigley Field.

Video: STL@CHC: Bryant cranks a solo smash to left-center

Then there is the Cubs' fielding. With perennial Gold Glove winner Jason Heyward missing from right field for much of the early season due to injury, shortstop Addison Russell has been the only defensive whiz for a Cubs team whose numbers for fielding percentage (.981) and errors committed (38) rank near the bottom of baseball.

Remember what I said about that mirage? Here's why.

No '27 Yankees in the division
Sure, what a contrast, but instead of Cubs starting pitching, I'm now talking about the NL Central. For the longest time, it was filled with some of baseball's most accomplished teams. At the moment? Not so much. The Brewers lead the division, and nobody expected that.

Even so, the Brewers have the worst record of any division leader at 29-25, which means the 26-27 Cubs are within a medium-sized winning streak of reaching the top.

Video: STL@CHC: Rizzo on his heads-up baserunning, 3-2 win

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals remain the Cardinals as the Cubs' biggest rivals. They sit at 26-26, but they've fluctuated all year. The Reds are rebuilding, and the Pirates are just trying to find their way back to prominence.

Translated: Take the Cubs at the end.

Friendly Confines return from the dead
Since the Cubs have that new World Series championship banner flying high above Wrigley Field, you would think it would make the home team tougher to handle at the corner of Addison and Clark. Such wasn't the case until the Cubs won seven of nine before hopping on that flight in late May for Southern California.

Here's my guess. After this homestand, which features the Marlins and the Rockies after the Cardinals leave town, a lot of the wrong for the Cubs will evolve into right for a while.

You can almost hear Ernie Banks declaring as much with his famous smile from that ivy-covered place Up There.

There's talent, period
Don't forget. The Cubs have one of the game's most gifted rosters, and many of their collection of All-Stars and near All-Stars haven't reached the peaks of their careers.

I think of Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber in particular. Beyond the home runs, neither has hit his stride at the plate this season (Rizzo with a .231 average and 12 homers after Friday's game, and Schwarber batting .163 with eight homers), but you know they will rebound sooner rather than later.

Video: CHC@SD: Schwarber hits a solo homer in the 5th

As for the pitchers, Arrieta and Hendricks have recent history of goodness on their side, and Lester already is close to efficiency.

Talking about closing the door
Closer Wade Davis is as dominant these days as he was during the Royals' run to their World Series championship in 2015.

Maybe more so.

Davis didn't give up his first run of the season until last week when the Giants' Mac Williamson barely dropped a Davis pitch into Wrigley's outfield basket in right field. In fact, that was the first homer off Davis in two years. After Friday's game, he was 11-for-11 in save opportunities with a 0.93 ERA.

Given the steady nature of Davis' four-seam fastball and mellow personality, he will continue to intimidate hitters in relief to lead what is one of baseball's best bullpens.

Who's the manager again?
Maddon already has proven he's nearly peerless as a motivator, and despite the second-guessing over some of his moves in Games 6 and 7 of the 2016 World Series, he's mostly solid with X's and O's.

I mean, the guy won it all for a team that hadn't done such a thing since before World War I.

So you don't think somebody like that can't maneuver the Cubs out of a little slump after the first couple of months of the season?

Video: STL@CHC: Dempster on the Cubs' World Series win

It's gone forever
Re-read what I just typed about Maddon, and consider this: That billy goat thing and Steve Bartman were buried for eternity about the time Bryant fielded that grounder at third, grinned and delivered the World Series-clinching throw over the Indians to Rizzo at first.

These Cubs aren't cursed. They're just sloppy, and that's an easier fix.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago Cubs