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First-place problems: Cubs losing more one-run games than most

The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo drops to one knee after striking out with two on base against the Giants in the seventh inning Saturday. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)

The Cubs are the team that can’t be blown out.

They are 6-6 in one-run games, 3-5 in two-run games, 2-1 in three-run games, 3-0 in four-run games and — are you ready for this? — 17-2 in games decided by five or more runs.

The higher the margin, the more you pretty much know which team is winning the game. Perhaps that’s the most impressive thing about a Cubs performance that has been, for over a quarter of the season, transcendent. Every opponent is going in knowing it’ll have to hang on like grim death to beat them.

If there’s a downside to being the team that can’t be blown out, it’s being hit with a sizable share of narrow defeats — tough ones to swallow, as Wednesday’s 9-8 Cubs victory surely was for the Cardinals.

Only five National League teams have more one-run losses than the Cubs’ six.

“It’s hard when you lose by one run,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “It’s painful.”

Any fan should be able to relate to that. Lopsided losses aren’t the ones that stick with you into the next day. It’s the close ones that leave players and fans with regrets, second-guesses and what-ifs.

And the next 10-run game with a goat will be the first. But show us a one-run loss, and we’ll show you the guy who threw the bad pitch, flubbed the ground ball or swung at ball four in the dirt with the bases loaded.

“The one-run games are the ones that you really wanted,” center fielder Dexter Fowler said. “You’re like, ‘Man, we were that close.’ Or worse, ‘Man, I blew it.’ Losing by one run is the worst.”

ON THE OTHER HAND

Not everyone takes one-run losses as hard as Montero and Fowler.

“Whether we lose by one or by six, the one thing that matters with this team is, Did we go out there and play our hardest?” shortstop Addison Russell said. “The people we have in our clubhouse are warriors, man. They don’t give up or get down no matter what the score is. If we lose sight of the daily goal of playing our hardest, then we lose the goal entirely.”

First baseman Anthony Rizzo actually prefers a 2-1 heart-breaker to an 8-2 snoozer any day.

“Getting blown out, getting your tail kicked in, it’s way worse. Those are the ones I have a problem with,” he said. “You lose a one-run game, it’s just baseball. Playing in these close games battle-tests you throughout the year. The more, the better.”

NOT EVEN CLOSE

If there’s a single stat that continues to define these Cubs, it’s their monstrous season run differential of plus-119.

It’s a number that, like a raging wildfire or Bartolo Colon, seems never to stop growing. Even during their recent 4-8 stretch, which ended with Monday’s series opener in St. Louis, the Cubs had a run differential of plus-six.

Since their worst defeat of the season — a 13-5 debacle in Cincinnati nearly five weeks ago — the Cubs have gone 18-9. The losses came by a total of 14 runs. The wins? By 74.

And about that Cincinnati series: The Cubs still took three of four from the Reds — by a cartoonish aggregate score of 33-1. The four-game score was a slightly more respectable 38-14. Chicagoans would dance in the streets if the Bears ever beat the Bengals like that.

THREE UP/DOWN

Up: The Cubs were 16-for-37 (.432) with runners in scoring position while winning two of three in St. Louis. It was a significant turnaround for a team that had been 6-for-45 (.133) in such situations over the previous seven games, five of them losses.

Down: Anthony Rizzo has three hits, none for extra bases, and two runs driven in over the last 10 games. It is a slump of serious proportions for a cleanup hitter with such a highly disciplined approach at the plate.

Up: But we’re belaboring the obvious when it comes to Ben Zobrist, who — where to start? — is batting .435 over the course of a 12-game hitting streak, had a pair of three-hit games in St. Louis and has reached base safely in each of his last 31 starts.

Cubs fans are going to have to wrap their brains around the fact the 35-year-old Zobrist has never hit .300 in the big leagues; his .338 has to simmer down at some point. Meantime, enjoy it.

1 THROUGH 9

1. Giants: Sorry, Cubs fans, but you’re just going to have to deal with this one. The Giants have won 13 of 14. Do we have to remind you how they fared last weekend against the Cubs?

2. Cubs: They’ve lost eight of their last 14 games. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta are coming off season-worst outings. Anthony Rizzo can’t buy a hit. It ain’t perfect.

3. Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr., Zander Bogaerts and — what’s his name again? — David Ortiz all are battling for the A.L. batting lead. The offense is the best in baseball, and it isn’t close.

4. Mariners: When you’re tops in the A.L. in ERA and near the top in every major offensive category, you’ve got a very good thing going. That Robinson Cano kid has a chance to be pretty good.

5. Pirates: They have the best team batting average and on-base percentage in the N.L. And they’re hotter than all get-out, separating from the Cardinals as the Cubs’ main divisional threat.

6. Mets: A series win at Washington and a five-out-of-six streak overall puts the Mets over the Nationals in these rankings, but it’s a dogfight at the top of the N.L. East.

7. Rangers: It couldn’t hurt if Prince Fielder got an actual hit every now and then. The other guys on this surging squad can’t pick him up forever.

8. Nationals: We don’t know what to make of this team offensively. Run of the mill? Maybe. The pitching is right up there with the Cubs’, though.

9. Orioles: The wheels aren’t falling off, but being swept at Houston raises some eyebrows.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com