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Throws of despair: Cubs pitching no match for division-leading Cards

ST. LOUIS – Maybe the back half of this barometer series against the division-rolling St. Louis Cardinals will look different for the Cubs with Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta scheduled to start the next two games.

For now, the Cubs are having enough trouble catching their breath against the St. Louis lineup to think they have a chance of catching the Cardinals in the standings.

“Listen, we were doing really well, and we just have to do a better job of holding leads,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after a three-run Cubs lead turned into a 7-4 loss Tuesday night at Busch Stadium. “It’s pretty simple stuff.”

Pretty much the main stuff in baseball: pitching.

The Cardinals are doing it – leading the majors with a 2.46 team ERA despite losing their ace, Adam Wainwright, for the season because of an April 25 Achilles injury. And getting 10 strong innings from their bullpen (two runs allowed) the last two nights despite getting crushed by three consecutive extra-inning games over the weekend.

The Cubs are not – getting no more than five innings from their starter in three of the last four games (getting six in the other) and blowing leads of 8-4 in the sixth and 3-1 in the fifth, respectively, in back-to-back losses to the Cards the last two nights.

How do the quickening Cubs compare to the perennial division contenders from St. Louis? There’s the answer.

They don’t. Not yet anyway.

The Cardinals won for the eighth consecutive game and boosted their franchise-best start to 20-6. It may be early, but the Cards’ start is so good that they’ll win 88 games this year if they do nothing more than go .500 the rest of the way.

The Cubs, meanwhile, suffered their fourth straight loss, shuffled the bullpen with a series of moves before the game, and don’t exactly inspire awe at the end of their rotation.

Hendricks, a rookie sensation last summer who drew lazy media comparisons to Greg Maddux, has yet to pitch more than six innings and reached that mark only once in five starts.

The right-hander was in trouble all night, limiting big damage until Matt Carpenter’s three-run homer in the fifth, and doesn’t seem especially sure he’ll have it figured out by Sunday in Milwaukee.

Maddon blamed Hendricks’ missing sink on his fastball and the fact he’s falling behind hitters – two flaws that can be fatal for any pitcher.

But Maddon said the Cubs won’t make a change in that rotation spot next time through – even with more roster moves likely coming over the next few days.

“I have a lot of faith in this guy,” Maddon said.

The Cubs alternatives appear limited anyway, short of a trade.

Class AAA left-hander Erik Jokisch, who spent a week on the DL recently with a blister on his finger, pitched six impressive-looking innings for AAA Iowa Monday night. Rehabbing left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, who pitched seven innings in his last rehab start Saturday for Iowa, could be activated from the DL.

And Edwin Jackson, who has looked good at times in a long and middle relief role, had his worst outing of the season Tuesday night. He gave up four hits, hit a batter, and allowed the two go-ahead runs in a sixth inning he couldn’t finish – leaving the bases loaded for newly added James Russell to get the final out.

“We’re not worried about him at all,” general manager Jed Hoyer said about Hendricks. “I think he’s a feel pitcher. I think as he gets out on the mound more often and gets his feel down, he has so many ways to get you out, I think he’ll be just fine.”