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Exposed: Cubs off to worst start since 1997 as they limp into home opener

Kyle Hendricks is still working on rediscovering top form two starts into the season.

MILWAUKEE — During the Cubs’ lost weekend in Milwaukee, a few Chicago writers sought Brewers manager Craig Counsell’s thoughts on the Cubs’ face-plant three series into the 2019 season.

One writer even bemoaned the rigors of the road trip on the media.

“The reporters are struggling, too,” he said, explaining he’d been away from home so long that he’d run out of clean underwear.

Seriously.

But if he was looking for sympathy, he was looking in the wrong place.

“Well, generally, that’s a soft group,” Counsell deadpanned. “As a whole, it’s a soft group.”

The Cubs got treated with even less regard, and far less sympathy, for much of the weekend at Miller Park.

By the time Brewers bullpen ace Josh Hader and his fastball blew past the Cubs’ final eight batters Sunday, the Brewers had a 4-2 victory, a series win and a 5½-game lead over the Cubs in the National League Central.

And this time the bullpen actually did its job, with four scoreless innings. But starter Kyle Hendricks struggled again, and the sum of the Cubs’ offensive output came on one swing — a two-run homer — by Willson Contreras in the sixth.

Just nine games into the season, the Cubs are 2-7, their worst nine-game start in 22 years.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any panic,” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said. “We’re just ready to get home and start over.”

Talk about dirty laundry. Talk about getting exposed.

The Cubs haven’t played a home game yet, and they’re already as far out of first place in the division as they’ve been at any point since 2015.

Their rotation has the highest ERA in the majors (6.80) and the fewest innings (41). Their bullpen ERA is far worse (8.37) — and that’s after improving by more than a full point with Sunday’s performance.

They have 12 errors from seven different positions.

They’ve already used the injured list for one pitcher and demoted another. They’re walking almost 6½ batters per nine innings. Their manager was caught on camera Saturday night cussing about the bullpen. And they’ve only won when they’ve scored 12 or more runs. They lost twice when scoring 10.

The only place they look worse these days is on social media, where the 2016 World Series no longer seems to have any power to cover the team’s flaws.

“We’re the Chicago Cubs,” shortstop Javy Baez said. “Obviously, everybody’s going to talk about us and talk about 2016 and all this bullcrap. But I don’t control that. I like it because when people talk about you it’s because they care — they either care or they hate you, whatever it is.”

There are 153 games left in the season. Which is either the good news or the bad news, depending on which direction they go.

Consider that since the Cubs led the Brewers by 2½ games on Sept. 22, the Brewers have gone 16-2 and have been nine games better in the standings.

“We’re a very tight-knit group; we care a lot about each other,” said Cubs ace Jon Lester, who is starting the home opener Monday against the Pirates. “A little adversity early on I think is going to make us better in the long run. I don’t think anybody in that room’s panicked by any means.

“It will be nice to get home and kind of almost start over there.’’

The bigger issues might be the Brewers and Cardinals, not to mention the Pirates, who bring the top-ranked starting rotation in the majors (2.06 ERA) into this week’s series.

The strengthened NL Central was a root cause behind all that urgency talk this spring.

“It sucks,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said.

“You go into spring training, ‘rah-rah, let’s get off to a good start.’ It’s not ‘rah-rah,’ but it’s that mentality, right? Every team has it. Some teams [start fast], some teams don’t.

“But we know how good we are.”

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