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Can’t live without Yu? Cubs say Darvish setback won’t deter title hopes

Jose Quintana's final seven starts take on greater importance with Darvish likely done for the season.

PITTSBURGH — It was supposed to be manager Joe Maddon’s best rotation in Chicago.

That’s what he said during spring training.

But with Yu Darvish’s latest setback, the Cubs must close out the National League Central race with less starting pitching than they’ve had since 2015.

Darvish, the four-time All-Star signed to a six-year, $126 million deal in February, had been expected back in early September.

“We’ve just got to be able to pick each other up,” said left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who delivered two of the four solo homers that accounted for all of the Cubs’ scoring in a series split with the Pirates, including one in the Cubs’ 2-1 loss in 11 innings Sunday.

“Obviously, if this sounds like he won’t be back for the year, we’re pretty confident in the staff that we’ve got.’’

Darvish, who pitched only one inning before feeling the same pain in his elbow he experienced during a rehab start in June, is scheduled to see the team orthopedist Monday. He also will have another MRI exam, the team said.

The Darvish news came two days after the Cubs were forced to put his rotation replacement — Mike Montgomery — on the disabled list because of shoulder soreness. Demoted starter Tyler Chatwood was retrieved from the bullpen to start in Montgomery’s place Saturday and got hooked after a three-run second inning and a leadoff walk in the third.

After Chatwood’s start, Maddon said he hopes Montgomery can be ready in time to start the next time that spot comes up and would seek alternatives to Chatwood otherwise.

For those scoring at home, that’s $164 million of free-agent starting pitching nowhere to be found in the rotation 4½ months and a combined 28 starts into their Cubs careers (combined 5.15 ERA).

For a sense of how challenging the final stretch appears without reinforcements, look at the just-concluded four-game series with the Pirates.

The Cubs became the first team to score only one run in four consecutive games all on solo homers.

And yet they won two of them. Schwarber’s homer Friday provided the margin in the Cubs’ second consecutive 1-0 win.

“That’s the upside,” Maddon said. “But we have to get our offense straightened out. I can’t make any excuses for it.”

Until then, they’ll have to pitch. And a shaky rotation that looked playoff-quality Thursday with Jon Lester and Friday with Cole Hamels likely will have to improve in the other spots to hang on to a 3½-game lead in the division with 39 games left.

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“Obviously, adding Yu back would be a boost for all of us,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “But you can’t hang your hat on guys [who are] hurt.

“We have a great pitching staff. We have a great defense. So we’re a tough team to beat even when we’re not hitting the ball at all.”

The Cubs have played all but 34 games without Darvish on the active roster.

They’re 20-14 (.588) with him and 51-38 (.573) without him.

But Montgomery was the Cubs’ top-performing starter (3.08 ERA) since joining the rotation in late May. So the timing on his return suddenly becomes critical, especially with 23 games in 23 days starting Tuesday in Detroit.

“We know we need [Darvish],” said left-hander Jose Quintana, who settled in to retire 10 in a row and take a 1-0 lead into the sixth before a single, walk and double tied the game and ended his start.

“But we’re doing better right now. You control the things you can control. We need to keep going.”