Cubs nearing quarter mark: Despite slow start, first place remains theirs

In a season already filled with ups and downs, bullpen is still the thrill ride that keeps on giving.

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Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds

Albert Almora Jr. and Daniel Descalso after scoring on Kyle Hendricks’ two-run double in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over the Reds.

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

CINCINNATI — When Yasiel Puig’s drive to right-center banged off the wall to beat the Cubs in the 10th inning Wednesday night at Great American Ball Park, the Cubs trudged off the field with the body language of a group that might as well have been battling through the dog days of August.

Who could blame them if it felt that way?

For all the success during a thrill-ride streak of baseball they’ve been on for the last month, they’d just experienced the fourth walk-off finish in their last eight games, their 12th one-run nail-biter of the season and the seventh game in which the bullpen blew a save.

They haven’t officially had a closer since before the All-Star break last year. They expect to be without their interim closer for another month after putting him on the injured list more than a week ago. They have played without their rotation ace for more than two weeks. And they had a key clubhouse leader take personal leave a week ago with no timeline for a return.

Yet when they take the field Thursday night against the Reds, trying to win a ninth consecutive series, the season won’t yet have reached the quarter mark.

Whatever comes next in this six-month marathon, this team already has crammed a lot of angst, stress, ups, downs and drama into the first six weeks.

“Even the offseason, everything combined — the end of last season, the offseason and this first month,” said manager Joe Maddon, referring also to the division tiebreaker and wild-card losses on back-to-back nights to end last season, followed by a budget-tapped, do-little winter.

“A combination of all that, then getting off to a slow [1-6 and 3-8] start, rebounding, weather-related issues – everything about it has not been easy,” he said. “Very difficult. I’m really proud of how our guys have fought through the baseball adversity.”

Maddon didn’t even mention Ben Zobrist’s leave to take care of matters related to his pending divorce. Or Addison Russell’s domestic violence suspension that led to media brushfires in the last week after he returned to the team. Or incidents of racist fan behavior targeting reliever Carl Edwards Jr. in April and then last week during a broadcast when Doug Glanville was on the air.

To be sure, the bullpen will remain a question mark until or unless they add enough answers at the end of the game between now and the trade deadline in July.

But the Cubs have managed to weather enough of the baseball storms, off-field storms and actual storms to assure a lead in the stacked National League Central heading into their weekend series in Washington.

They have at least four and maybe as many as seven All-Star candidates, depending on how the next several weeks play out, led by shortstop Javy Baez and catcher Willson Contreras.

They’re averaging a league-leading 5.4 runs per game.

And the starting rotation – despite the ups and mostly downs of Yu Darvish this season – has been the plow horse for a team that has churned up 23 wins in its last 31 games entering play Thursday.

The rotation’s 3.14 ERA tops the National League and is second only to the Tampa Bay Rays (2.42) in the majors.

Ace Jon Lester’s 1.16 through seven starts would lead the majors if he hadn’t missed time with a hamstring injury and had just 1.1 more innings to qualify for the leaderboard.

Kyle Hendricks is on a role that has him unbeaten with a 0.36 ERA through three starts this month. And Jose Quintana’s newly refined changeup has him close to the early All-Star bubble as he takes the mound Thursday night.

And their 25-15 record marks the second-best 40-game start in five years under Maddon – second only to their wire-to-wire 2016 championship season (29-11).

“I don’t want to take any victory laps now,” team president Theo Epstein said this week of the team’s impressive rebound since its rough opening road trip. “Our guys have done a really nice job of turning to the foundation when pushed early by that trip, and we’ve played pretty darn good baseball.

“But we’re entering a tough part of the schedule now,” he added. “The next month will be a great test for us.”

After a relative abundance of off days on the early schedule, the Cubs are in the third day of a stretch of 33 games in 34 days, including 17 games against contenders Philadelphia (four), Houston (three), St. Louis (six) and the Dodgers (four).

“Our guys have come out with the best of all attitudes right now, and the interaction has been fabulous,” Maddon said.

Said Epstein: “We didn’t get out of the starting blocks the way we wanted to, but we’ve found our stride now. It’s a matter of maintaining it.”

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