Division of labor: NL Central is Cubs’ biggest edge at 50-game mark

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Ian Happ loses his helmet striking out as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning of the Cubs’ 5-2 loss to the Padres Monday.

SAN DIEGO — As bad as the Cubs’ frustrating start has been, they’re well aware it could be much worse.

In either of the other two National League divisions, they’d trail by at least six games instead of the 1½-game deficit they face in the NL Central 50 games into the season, and they’d be 10 back if they were in the American League West.

“We definitely look at that and see where we are,” said Kyle Hendricks, who started Monday, “but it’s one of those things where we’ve got to focus on ourselves and simplify as much as possible and just start playing Cub baseball the way we know how to play.”

Manager Joe Maddon said before the 5-2 loss to the last-place Padres in the series opener that this season feels “more reminiscent of 2015,” when the Cubs were 27-23 at this point and only seven games over .500 at the All-Star break but went on a torrid second-half run to finish with 97 wins.

But that team had Jake Arrieta produce the greatest 20-start finish in history, injected red-hot Kyle Schwarber into the lineup at midseason, watched rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell grow into impact roles after debuting in April and even got a boost defensively from Russell’s middle-infield position swap with Starlin Castro that put Russell at short.

This team is relying on rebounds and adjustments — and maybe a trade this summer — with few, if any, apparent impact options in house since they went to Ian Happ sooner than expected.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to be .500, but it doesn’t matter,” said Hendricks, who retired the first 10 he faced before the next four built up to a game-changing grand slam.

“We’re at where we’re at. All the [post-championship] attention and all that, we’ve got to forget about it and focus on the game.”

Zobrist wrist issue

After missing two games because of a sore left wrist, leadoff man Ben Zobrist returned to the lineup — only to leave again in the eighth because of the wrist.

“He’s fine,” Maddon said. “We just didn’t want him to hit right-handed.”

Maddon said Zobrist is still uncomfortable swinging right- handed. He’s expected to start again Tuesday against right-hander Dinelson Lamet.

Zobrist, who has played much of the season through back and wrist pain, hurt the wrist swinging in the first inning Friday night against the Dodgers.

He walked three times against Padres right-hander Jarred Cosart — reaching base for the 24th game in a row — and is 13-for-32 (.406) with three home runs and five walks in his last 10 games.

In the sixth, with left-hander Ryan Buchter pitching, Zobrist bunted rather than swing with two outs and nobody on.

In the eighth, with lefty Brad Hand pitching, Maddon pulled Zobrist for Happ.

Grimm keeper?

Justin Grimm returned to the bullpen from Class AAA Iowa after his second minor-league demotion of the season and pitched two scoreless innings.

The Cubs have used his roster spot as a reliever shuttle position, shipping “optionable” pitchers back and forth to assure a fresh arm in that spot.

Felix Pena, who threw 22 pitches in one inning Sunday, was optioned to make room for Grimm.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com


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