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With hoopla aplenty, Cubs drop series opener to Yankees

Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, left, tags out the New York Yankees' Starlin Castro during the sixth inning Friday at Wrigley Field. | AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Ask most of the Cubs’ personnel and they’ll tell you this weekend’s series against the Yankees will conclude the whirlwind opening to 2017.

After a spring that spotlighted them as world champs, after banner raisings and ring presentations, after a trip to Boston and the hoopla of Theo Epstein’s return there, and after the ultra attention of the Yankees this weekend, the Cubs figure they can get “back to normal baseball’’ after Sunday.

But things never will be quite the same as past seasons.

Friday’s 2-0 lead through eight innings brought visions of 2016, only to have a ninth-inning heartbreaker in Brett Gardner’s three-run homer off Hector Rondon (0-1) turn it into a 3-2 loss.

What did look like 2016 was Aroldis Chapman’s work as a closer, but this time he saved the game for the Yankees.

“It was a wonderful, great game,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. They just got us in the end. “We were short in the bullpen and it was [Rondon’s] game.’’

The Cubs already are hearing how their first 16 wins haven’t come in the same style of last season. The starting pitching doesn’t seem quite up to par. And though the bullpen has been strong, the Cubs’ 10 come-from-behind victories will tax them eventually.

Maddon knows that, but he remains a believer in the starters’ eventually “settling in.’’

“To have such a decent record [16-13] with the starting pitching not doing as well yet, I find encouraging,’’ he said.

Kyle Hendricks persevered into the sixth with a shutout, in large part because of outstanding defense by Jason Heyward in right field.

Heyward fought a gusty wind that got the better of Yankees outfielders, twice starting inning-ending double plays to keep Hendricks’ 1-0 lead alive.

“Today was one of the toughest days I’ve seen,’’ said Heyward of the northerly gale reaching 35 mph. “You just have to be ready and try to be at the spot [the ball] will be.’’

Kris Bryant gave the Cubs an early lead in the first with a solo home run off Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda. Kyle Schwarber added another home run in the sixth, but Cubs hitters managed only four hits.

The team’s pitching was solid throughout most of the game. Hendricks, Brian Duensing and Pedro Strop allowed only eight hits before the ninth. The defense also came up big.

“The defense was huge,’’ Hendricks said. “J-Hey and the infield with KB [Bryant] and [shortstop Addison Russell], that’s what kept us in the game.’’

Hendricks helped himself by staying “focused” as a seemingly small strike zone posed a challenge.

“It’s there,’’ he said of the mechanics that made him baseball’s ERA leader last season but was absent in his first several starts this season. “I just have to start trusting it.’’

Hendricks has a 1.04 ERA in his last three starts.

“Kyle is looking the same [in the last few starts],” Maddon said. “I still think there’s another level left.’’

Hendricks is an example of how different things are for the Cubs at the start of the season.

Last season’s world champs won 103 regular-season games, but that isn’t necessarily the target this year.

Maddon and his staff consider the magic number to be 90, a number that more than likely gets a team into the playoffs.

Follow me on Twitter @toniginnetti.

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