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Cubs — halfway to who-knows-where at 40-41 — opine on what’s to come

Anthony Rizzo's Cubs at the 81-game halfway point: not good. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

CINCINNATI — Let’s all pause, take a breath and try to have a productive conversation about the fact that the defending World Series champion Cubs have arrived at the 81-game mark — that’s halfway to 162 where we come from — with a below-.500 record of 40-41.

What say you, Jason Heyward?

‘‘Baseball,’’ the injured right fielder said before the Cubs’ 5-3 defeat Saturday at the hands of the Reds, their second consecutive loss to the National League Central cellar-dwellers.

Baseball?

‘‘It’s baseball,’’ he elaborated.

Meaning what, exactly?

‘‘Baseball. It’s baseball. It’s just baseball.’’

One almost gets the feeling it has something to do with baseball. Heyward isn’t the only Cubs player who basically is leaving it at that these days.

More specifically, though, there are a number of areas in which the Cubs are falling glaringly short of expectations, especially in light of their success in 2016. For example, these Cubs would trail those Cubs by 11 games in the standings at the halfway point. Who could have seen that coming?

But let’s dare to dig deeper still. Here’s one: The Cubs have only 33 quality starts from their pitchers, compared with a lights-out 54 at this time last season.

First innings have been particularly disastrous. The Cubs have allowed 67 first-inning runs, four fewer than they yielded in the first all last season.

And how about the bats? These Cubs have had three or fewer hits a hard-to-believe 10 times, one fewer than all last season. And they’ve been shut out seven times, most recently Friday by the lowly Reds. The Cubs were shut out six times all last season.

The 2016 Cubs also played essentially the entire regular season without an injured Kyle Schwarber. They missed leadoff man Dexter Fowler for a considerable stretch, too. But the harder-luck 2017 Cubs have had more pieces coming and going.

One of them is Ben Zobrist, who returned Saturday from the disabled list and had plenty to say about the state of the season. Only his mind was entirely on the 81 games to come, not the 81 in the past.

‘‘There’s still that collective feeling of needing to change some things as a unit,’’ he said. ‘‘We look forward to turning that thing around completely and heading in the other direction. [Being] .500 isn’t good enough for us, and we know that. So we can’t hang our heads about that. We have to stop looking at the standings, stop looking at what other teams are doing and play the game of baseball the way we know how to play it.’’

But the Cubs have made constant references to the standings in the awful NL Central, using them as the primary reason not to freak out about how poorly they are playing. And it is true — unquestionably — that the second-place Cubs are in a relatively comfortable position at three games behind the Brewers.

Still, what’s with these guys?

‘‘You always have things within the season that you have to control and you have to come back from,’’ left-hander Jon Lester said. ‘‘You have the ups and downs. You have an even bigger target on your back now as far as being the defending champions. You have the long season last year playing a factor.

‘‘It’s all been kind of tough and kind of unpredictable this year, but you know what? That’s baseball.’’

Of course, it is.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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