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Epstein: Struggling Cubs pressing at the plate

MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

CHICAGO -- A year ago, the Cubs had a 16-15 record and were one game back in the National League Central. There was talk about how the team was dealing with a World Series hangover after the successful 2016 season.

On Monday, the Cubs have the same 16-15 record but find themselves 3 1/2 games back and scuffling unexpectedly on offense and defense. The starting pitching hasn't found its rhythm either.

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CHICAGO -- A year ago, the Cubs had a 16-15 record and were one game back in the National League Central. There was talk about how the team was dealing with a World Series hangover after the successful 2016 season.

On Monday, the Cubs have the same 16-15 record but find themselves 3 1/2 games back and scuffling unexpectedly on offense and defense. The starting pitching hasn't found its rhythm either.

View Full Game Coverage

"It was easy to look at the World Series hangover thing last year," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said on Monday. "There's no cute name for this one. It's just struggling.

"We have a number of guys who are pressing, and we're slumping,. It's not pretty. We know our fans are probably frustrated and dying. Our [players] care a lot and we know they're pressing and we know it's not going to last forever. There's no easy answer. There's no fire-and-brimstone speech that will turn this thing around. Just continue to work hard and one good swing for each player involved usually is the key for having them feel good and go on a tear."

No one expected Anthony Rizzo to be batting .177 or for Addison Russell to have zero home runs or Willson Contreras to be hitting .231. The Cubs also rank 14th in the National League in batting average with runners in scoring position (.218).

Video: CHC@STL: Rizzo plates Contreras to give Cubs the lead

The problem isn't new hitting coach Chili Davis, Epstein said.

"We haven't changed anyone's core identity as a hitter," Epstein said. "That's not what's going on in there. Our guys are slumping now and they're all kind of doing it at the same time. That's why it's so frustrating and everyone's pressing. We'll come out of it."

Third baseman Kris Bryant said he can tell when he's pressing because his forearms are sore from gripping the bat too tight.

"When things aren't going our way, everybody puts pressure on themselves," Bryant said. "This game is hard and we're all human and we all put pressure on ourselves when things aren't going well."

In their last 11 games through Sunday, the Cubs have scored 27 runs and were batting .203. They've lost six of the 11 games.

"We're doing a much better job with nobody on than with runners in scoring position," Epstein said. "Everyone wants to be the one to drive in those runs and turn this thing around."

Video: CHC@STL: Bryant smashes mammoth homer down the line

The Cubs have rotated five different leadoff hitters, but Epstein said that's not the problem either.

"You can't pin it on any one spot in the lineup," Epstein said. "We're last in the league in walks. That's not going to last. We're not going to lead the league in soft contact."

The soft contact is resulting in a lot of weak ground-ball outs. What's also contributed to the Cubs' struggles is sloppy defensive play. They're tied for second in the NL with 26 errors.

"We've had some defensive mishaps and have done it to ourselves," Epstein said. "It puts an extra strain on your pitching staff when they don't need the extra burden. When you're not hitting, those plays that you don't make can be the difference between winning a series or losing a series, winning a game or losing a game. That might be the hardest to explain. We have to keep grinding away and stress to stay focused and lock in our defense. If you help the pitching staff, good things tend to happen."

The players feel they can turn it around as they did last season.

"Our start this year is not the way we wanted it to go, but we still think we're the best team in the division and we have all the confidence in the world that we'll be where we want to be just like last year," Bryant said. "We sort of have a track record as a team. I think it's important to look at what we have done."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

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