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Bullpen, defense falter again as Cubs fall to Royals

There’s no doubt the Cubs’ model for building a contender works.

The Giants, Pirates and, most recently, the Royals, all rebuilt through the draft, developed a stockpile of prospects and found success.

The Royals, who made their first visit to Wrigley Field since 2001 this weekend, built around their stellar bullpen, sturdy defense and solid baserunning. The Cubs, meanwhile, stocked up on hitters to assemble a dynamic, run-producing lineup.

The rebuild resulted in a World Series appearance for the Royals last season. The Cubs may be able to say the same at some point in the not-too-distant future.

But the stark differences between the two clubs were on full display Friday. The Royals scored three runs in the eighth inning after some poor plays from the Cubs own bullpen and defense.

The Cubs went on to lose, 8-4, after rallying back from a three-run deficit to tie the game in the seventh inning.

“They showed why they went to the World Series last year,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “and we showed why we’re not ready yet.”

The Royals’ defense and bullpen are both best in the majors, and they’re the primary reasons Kansas City is 20-0 when leading after seven innings and 25-0 when leading after eight.

The Cubs are on the other end of the spectrum in both areas, ranking 22nd in bullpen ERA and 18th in defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs.com. Only the Diamondbacks, Blue Jays and Marlins have more blown saves than the Cubs.

Maddon admitted before Friday’s game that it would be easier to build a team around pitching and defense.

“On a nightly basis, the part of the game that should be more solid and consistent would be defense,” Maddon said. “That’s the area that, once you get good defenders, that is gonna show up every night. When you have a solid pitching staff with a good bullpen, that should show up most of the time, percentage-wise. Those are two constants that you can rely on every night.”

The Cubs tied the game on Addison Russell’s solo home run in the seventh inning, but the momentum was short-lived.

Pedro Strop replaced Jake Arrieta in the eighth and gave up a lead-off walk before an RBI double to Lorenzo Cain. Two more runs scored when Dexter Fowler dropped a fly ball in center field.

The Royals bullpen – which owns a 1.84 ERA – and defense prevented the Cubs from getting back into the game.

“I’m trying to get my tempo and my rhythm and everything back on track to help the team win,” Strop said, “because I feel like I’m not doing that right now.”

Jorge Soler homered in the sixth, and Kris Bryant hit an RBI double in the second.

Former Cubs manager and current Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum, who made his first return to Wrigley after being fired in 2013, said the Cubs will be a force on batting strength alone when they’re ready.

“You’re dealing with guys over there that slug,” Sveum said. “Obviously, they strike out a lot. They swing and they can hit the ball a long way. And when they get some more Major-League at-bats under their belt, you’re gonna have to deal with some serious power every day when you come to Wrigley or play the Cubs.”

But as the first-place Royals proved Friday, the Cubs aren’t at their level yet.

Notes:

-The Cubs switched Jason Hammel and Tsuyoshi Wada in the rotation to give Hammel an extra day of rest. Wada will now pitch Saturday against Yordano Ventura, and Hammel will face Jeremy Guthrie in Sunday’s finale.

-Cubs pitching prospect Carl Edwards Jr. (formerly C.J.) was promoted to Triple-A on Friday. General manager Jed Hoyer said last month that Edwards could be a solution in the bullpen at some point this season.

email: djust@suntimes.com

Twitter: DavidJustCST