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Cubs beat Reds 5-4, seek big finish from 3-4-5 part of rotation

Kyle Schwarber was there for the Cubs again, this time hitting the two-run, seventh-inning homer to give he Cubs’ their first lead.

And Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon were there from the back end of the bullpen to retire all six they faced to close out the Cubs’ 5-4 victory over the last-place Cincinnati Reds.

But as the season officially hit the September stretch run on Tuesday, the Cubs were well aware they need more than the rookies and relievers to finish in the final 31 games what they started the last five months.

“Our pitching is fundamentally important, especially this time of the year,” Epstein said. “But by no means are we panicking about it or concerned about it.”

Specifically, he was asked about the starting staff, which beyond Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester has shown cracks and leaks much of the second half.

Veteran Dan Haren, the right-hander the Cubs landed at the non-waiver trade deadline when they couldn’t close bigger deals, pitched just five innings Tuesday.

That he gave up just two runs and was able to get a one-run game to the third at-bats for big lefties Jay Bruce and Joey Votto made it a met-expectations start for Haren.

“Obviously, my leash is a little bit short,” said Haren (1-2, 5.87 in six starts with the Cubs). “I understand what Joe’s doing. I’d love to be out there longer, but we’ve got a great bullpen and we’re doing to use it.

“I’m trying make the most of the amount of pitches I get or the innings I get, whether it be five, I’m definitely not going to complain about it. I’ve just got to make them the best five innings I can.”

That’s part of the fine line the rotation walks after Arrieta and, often, Lester.

A team that has held its starting depth together by a string all season got a 3.41 performance from that group before the All-Star break, the big reason for its winning first-half record.

But since the All-Star break, only the resurgence of a Schwarber-boosted lineup has been able to cover the warts of a rotation that through August had a 3.94 ERA since the break – and 10-9, 5.00 combined for everybody after Arrieta.

But with the schedule heating up down the stretch — starting next week in St. Louis — they’ll find it increasingly difficult to hit their way out of pitching messes.

“It’s huge,” managaer Joe Maddon said. “Our bullpen is relatively rested right now, but that could go away. We just need to start picking up some more innings out of the starters, too.”

In August, Arrieta went 6-0 with a 0.43 ERA – the rest of the rotation 7-6, 5.20.

Depth? Epstein on Tuesday said that starting depth consisted of the guy the Cubs acquired for $1 from the Pirates’ minor-league system, Clayton Richard, along with Travis Wood, Tsuyoshi Wada and minor-leaguers Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch.

Which means, Kyle Hendricks, Haren and — perhaps especially — Jason Hammel will have to get it done.

“Now as the calendar turns toward September,” Epstein said, “it’s going to get a little cooler around here and the offense isn’t going to be as easy to come by.

“It’s the natural progression where it’s time; for us to get where we want to go, the pitching’s going to have to take over again at some point.”

Hammel pitched like an All-Star (2.86) the first half before suffering a leg injury July 8 and looks like the key.

Hammel, who pitched seven or more innings in eight of his last 13 starts until the injury, has fought through pain and short start since then. But he looked strong in his last start and said he’s back to 100 percent physically.

“The worst thing you can do is put more pressure on yourself to perform,” said Hammel, who starts Wednesday in the series finale against the Reds. “I feel pretty good. My last two starts I haven’t been deep in ballgames, but stuff-wise I feel I’m better than I was before the injury. I’m excited for this next five or six starts to see what I can do.”

Said Epstein: “We’re going to pitch well again, and our pitching’s going to win us a lot of important games, even the bottom part of the rotation.”