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Swinging or missing? Cubs still seek identity, strong personality

Jason Heyward congratulates Anthony Rizzo after Rizzo's fourth-inning homer Tuesday night. Heyward hit one in the second.

Good luck finding a milk carton big enough for the Cubs to list all the things missing so far from their efforts to repeat.

Scoreless first innings. Production from the leadoff spot. Defensive stability in the outfield. Good weather. Bad opponents.

The list could go on depending on the given distraction, series or 18-inning game.

What hasn’t been missing, they say, is effort or focus. And even after month-long slumps by key hitters and early struggles by the rotation, they were hovering just above .500 with a late lead Tuesday against the Giants.

“I don’t think there’s any of that,” MVP Kris Bryant said recently. “But I think when you lose certain guys that provide that intensity, like David Ross, it’s just a matter of finding who’s going to fill that hole.

“That’s more where I see it, not in terms of on the field or any of that.”

At least we know what picture goes on the milk carton.

It might be a reach to think the loss of a backup catcher who’s already more famous for dancing on TV could make that kind of difference for a team that returned almost intact from a World Series championship.

But with nearly three-quarters of the season left, the larger point might be worth watching – while also remembering the Cubs started more 25-and-under players than any other World Series team in history.

“I just think in general, every single year a team has to find its own identity,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Whether that’s on the field or whether that’s in the clubhouse from a leadership standpoint.

“You look around the diamond, and you look at the rotation, this team looks incredibly similar. It’s never similar. You can never replicate it. ’15 was really successful, and ’16 was totally different.”

Through the same number of games last year, the Cubs were 30-14 with the top-performing rotation in baseball, an even better performing defense and an enormous run differential that grew to plus-252 for the season.

“Obviously, ’16 was successful, but it doesn’t mean you just roll it over,” Hoyer said. “I think that’s what these guys are trying to find right now. Even if we brought back everybody, it’s never the same. Every team comes together in its own way.”

So the milk carton has no picture as the Cubs fight through the early adversity to regain what had become the Cubs’ new normal the last two seasons.

“We lost a couple guys that were very prominent last season, and now there’s other guys shifting into that level or method of influence,” manager Joe Maddon said before Tuesday’s game. “And it’s gonna happen. I think there’s still some of that [adjusting] going on.

“And that’s why I was so effusive about last night’s game,” he said of a 6-4 loss Monday that was largely played well, especially defensively. “That’s the way it’s supposed to look, and that’s the way it’s supposed to sound in the dugout. And even though we didn’t win, that’s the way the end of the game’s supposed to look like.”

Even in that game, the Cubs allowed a first-inning run – their major-league-high 46th of the season allowed. They also made spectacular plays at short and in center that inning. And they rallied in the eighth for four runs and had the potential tying run at the plate when the game ended.

By Tuesday, starter Jon Lester retired 11 of the first 12 he faced, including six strikeouts, helping the Cubs jump to a 4-0 lead.

“So many guys got off to lukewarm starts, very tepid,” Maddon said. “Nobody’s sizzling out there. All of a sudden [Ben Zobrist] is getting there a little bit.

“But my point is if somebody had gotten off to that kind of a start maybe that person would have ascended by now. It has not happened. But it will. And I think as performances increase, then you’re going to see guys really growing up a little bit more. And then you’re going to see what we’re looking for, this new method of leadership within the group.”

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