Mets hit 3 homers off John Lackey as Cubs’ rotation woes continue

NEW YORK — Forget the men in scoring position. The Cubs do that when they’re at the plate anyway.

This season, like the last one, will be made or waylaid by their starting pitching.

The Cubs’ otherworldly run differential last season was built on it. They often turned close games into routs late after the starters throttled the opposition.

And the Cubs’ mediocrity nearly 2½ months into this season has been built just as surely on almost the same group of starters.

Cubs starter John Lackey waits for Jay Bruce to round the bases after Bruce's two-run homer in the third inning Monday.

Naturally, manager Joe Maddon seems certain the rotation will start performing closer to the 2016 form that led the majors in starters’ ERA (2.96) and quality starts (100). The top four from that group returned, including National League Cy Young Award finalists Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

‘‘I believe in our guys,’’ Maddon said before another rough start resulted in a 6-1 loss Monday to the Mets that dropped the Cubs’ record below .500 again at 31-32. ‘‘There’s no reason for me [not to].’’

Except that he and the rest of the Cubs have a harder time explaining the inconsistent performances by the four returning starters, other than early-season velocity issues with two of them and potential carryover from back-to-back deep playoff runs.

Then again, Hendricks — who led the majors in ERA in 2016 — said he doesn’t think playing until November last season is affecting the rotation now. He pointed out the group was able to lock in early last season and sustain it for much of the way.

So maybe it isn’t so much a problem of 2017 as a rarefied group performance in 2016.

The Cubs have had two starters go on the disabled list this season, but neither — Brett Anderson (back) and Hendricks (hand) — with an arm injury. Jake Arrieta, the 2015 NL Cy Young winner, is trying to avoid being pushed back a few days as he manages a cut on his right thumb that has affected his last two starts.

‘‘Happens,’’ Maddon said of the wear-and-tear issues.

But this has happened a lot, too: John Lackey giving up a home run. He did it three times in the series opener against the Mets — two solo shots to Asdrubal Cabrera and a two-run shot to Jay Bruce — to put the Cubs in a 4-0 hole before the fifth.

Lackey took over the major-league lead with 22 homers allowed, but the rotation’s problems don’t all belong to him.

Want a reason for the Cubs’ disappointing record this season? Start with this: They’ve trailed in 50 of their 63 games.

Then add this number: The rotation has a 4.75 ERA and has averaged barely 5 1/3 innings a start. None of the seven pitchers who has made a start for the Cubs this season has an ERA below 4.00 as a starter.

Through the same number of games last season, the rotation had a 2.35 ERA and the starters were pitching more than 6 1/3 innings a start. And the Cubs were 44-19 with a 9½-game lead in the NL Central.

Which seems more unusual? Which group performance seems more the aberration?

‘‘Our starters have not hit their stride yet on a start-by-start basis,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘But look at the number of pitches they’ve thrown — it’s good. And the number of innings they’ve thrown — not heavy.

‘‘So as long as their arms are well, which I think they are, I believe they’re going to come back.’’

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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