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Starting block: Cubs rotation falling short

ST. LOUIS – Forget all the bullpen machinations in recent days and the all the talk about the kids and the hitters so far all season.

The difference between the October-tested, first-place Cardinals and these wannabe-champ Cubs is a huge gap in starting pitching that was exemplified Thursday when John Lackey pitched into the eighth inning to beat Jake Arrieta and the Cubs 5-1.

They know it, too – no matter what optimistic manager Joe Maddon says.

“We’re not happy about it,” said Arrieta, who couldn’t get through the sixth for the second straight start.

It was the third time in the series the Cubs starter failed to pitch at least six – all three of those games losses, including two that involved blown leads by an overworked bullpen.

“It’s just frustrating,” said Arrieta, who looked like an ace in April before giving up eight earned runs in 10 1/3 innings in May losses to the Brewers and Cardinals. “Back-to-back starts now where I haven’t been very good. I’ve got some work to do. I need to clean some things up and come out next time with a little better start and set the tone better.”

He’s not alone.

Even with big-money ace Jon Lester (Wednesday’s winner) looking like he’s regained his form in recent starts, the Cubs’ rotation ranks 12th of 15 in the National League with a 4.16 ERA. The starters have failed to go at least six innings in 12 of 27 starts this season, including four of the past six.

Maddon insists the rotation is not a concern. “It’s just not,” he said. “I just think our guys are going to continue to get better. They’re healthy, and I think they’re going to hit their stride.”

NOTES – Outfield prospect Albert Almora, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 draft, went 2-for-3 Wednesday for Class AA Tennessee in his return from a DL stint for a concussion (raising his season average to .313).

–Rookie Addison Russell extended his hitting streak to 10 games with a third-inning single. He’s 12-for-35 (.343) during that streak with five of his team-leading six doubles, after a 2-for-18 start.