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How the Cubs finish could be all about how they start

Jake Arrieta fist bumps Jon Lester on Lester's way off the field during last year's playoffs.

Make no mistake: The Cubs need their leadoff hitter, Dexter Fowler, back from the disabled list to be the team that got off to that best-in-baseball start the first two months of the season.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that will come close to solving the problems that led to their 6-15 slide into the All-Star break.

“The Cubs? They’re as good as their pitching takes them, said a longtime scout and executive for a National League team, who has scouted several Cubs series. “They might have the most flexible, deep lineup in baseball, when they’re healthy. But their starting rotation is obviously what makes them go.”

Or keeps them from going anywhere this year.

The Cubs open the second half of the season Friday against the Texas Rangers, who bring the American League’s best record to Wrigley Field.

And while many gush the next few days over things like “World Series sneak peeks,” the thing that may say the most about whether the Cubs get a peek at all is how the starters look the next five days after a lengthy break to regroup.

“I really do believe everybody got a little bit tired. I think the schedule beat us up a little bit,” manager Joe Maddon said, with emphasis on the 24 games in 24 days the Cubs played into the break – spread across five different cities.

“Our whole success is going to be contingent upon our starting pitching getting back to where it had been.”

For more than two months, the Cubs’ starting five was on a history-making pace that realistically was not sustainable.

But the performance as a group plummeted the last three weeks, with a 6.04 ERA during that 21-game slide.

And the rotation hasn’t even been good this month – as in zero quality starts in 10 starts in July.

Blame the injured position players, such as Fowler? The Cubs are 7-15 since the center fielder went on the DL with a hamstring injury.

They’ve also averaged 5.0 runs per game in his absence (compared to 5.3 before).

The rotation problems have also meant a bullpen that went into the season looking like it could use another back-end arm has been beaten up – guys like Justin Grimm battling fatigue and Travis Wood getting leaned on hard in multiple roles.

That was only exacerbated by an influx of raw guys from Class AAA Iowa after lefty Clayton Richard (blister) was sent out to essentially work on his pitches, and Adam Warren was sent to the minors stretch out for a spot start.

“It’s extremely hard on a pitching staff when you run through stretches like this, because you’re trying to keep guys healthy and sharp and not overuse them,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “But when the starters aren’t doing their job, it makes it tough on the rest of the team.

“And when you have skids like this guys tend to press a little bit. … We’re all trying to find ways, especially with the starting pitching, how we’ve tried to set the tone all year.”

The Cubs have 74 games left to hold a seven-game lead over the Cardinals and 7½-game lead over the Pirates in the National League Central.

They don’t have to be as good as they were the first 6-8 weeks of the season to do that. But their starters have to make it happen.

And they may not get any help, even as team president Theo Epstein said he’s looking at the starting pitching market, along with bullpen arms, toward the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

It’s a weak market, especially compared to a year ago.

Consider that a year ago at this time, Sunday’s starter for Texas, All-Star lefty Cole Hamels, was on the market and pitched a no-hitter against the Cubs just before being traded from the Phillies.

This year? It’s maybe Sonny Gray (who’s already been on the DL this year), Ervin Santana and guys like Rich Hill.

The Cubs’ starters likely have to do it themselves.

And that starts with All-Stars Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester pitching like All-Stars the second half — especially Arrieta, who hasn’t lasted seven innings in a month and who has gone just 5 1/3 or less in seven of his last 14.

Even when the bullpen’s at full strength, that’s a significant burden on a relief crew built for two short starts every five days – not three or more.

Maddon and both front-of-the-rotation starters insist nothing is physically wrong with either, Lester bristling at the insinuation after the second of two starts that totaled just 4 1/3 innings heading into the break.

“They set the tone in the first half, and I really anticipate they’re going to do the same thing in the second half,” Maddon said.

How significant the Cubs view those two starters to their big plans for the second half – and October — is underscored by the extra rest both get coming out of the break, pushed to Monday and Tuesday against the Mets. Lester will pitch on his ninth day, Arrieta his 11th.

Maybe Fowler gets back quickly. Maybe the break helped ease the aches and pains in Anthony Rizzo’s and Miguel Montero’s backs, Ben Zobrist’s knee and lower legs, Addison Russell’s shoulder, Kris Bryant’s lower legs and a half-dozen other bumps and bruises up and down the roster.

But how the Cubs finish is almost certainly going to be about how they start.

“We’ve got to make our own breaks,” Bosio said. “Because nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”