The trouble with these Cubs is that they’re not those Cubs

The NL Central is a brute of a division, but that doesn’t explain the Cubs’ difficulties. Maybe the simplest explanation does: They’re still a good team, but they aren’t what they used to be.

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Atlanta Braves v Chicago Cubs

Cubs manager Joe Maddon watches as his team takes on the Braves at Wrigley Field on June 25.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Joe Maddon is not worried. He’s never worried, at least publicly. If the day arrives when he is worried, I would urge you to seek immediate shelter — preferably shelter that can withstand a nuclear warhead.

The Cubs’ manager might not be the best person to go to when trying to figure out if what’s happening to his struggling team is actually worrisome or just baseball being baseball. The Cubs went 14-15 in June. They haven’t won a series on the road since the Mesozoic era, the latest failure coming in Cincinnati over the weekend.

The sky isn’t falling, but, wait, do I detect some tearing on the outer edges?

The troubles on the road are — what’s the word? — troubling. The Cubs were tied for first place in the National League Central heading into their game Monday night in Pittsburgh and fell a game behind the Brewers with their 18-5 loss. Their 29-16 home record is one of the best in baseball, but their 16-24 road record is almost comically bad for a team with playoff aspirations. The very sad Marlins have had more success on the road (17-21) than the Cubs.

I’ve always thought the Friendly Confines are a bit too friendly and a bit too comfortable for Cubs players. So much love flows at Wrigley Field that it’s a wonder a Cub hasn’t given birth to a miracle baby on second base. To go on the road after being unconditionally loved like that would seem to be daunting. But Cubs fans flock to road games, too. So what’s the problem this season?

There’s something missing with this team. Perhaps you feel the void, too. It might be as concrete as a lack of clutch hitting or as subtle as a motivational deficiency — or perhaps a combination of both. If Maddon is a motivational guru, his motivating doesn’t seem to be working on the road. I’ve never understood how a manager can successfully encourage a baseball team to be better or try harder, especially away from home. You can’t tell players to grip the bat harder. Playing angry might work in football, but anger isn’t your friend at the plate.

So you can see why there might be some feelings of helplessness among the fan base.

The NL Central is a brute of a division, but that doesn’t explain the Cubs’ difficulties. Maybe the simplest explanation does: They’re still a good team, but they aren’t what they used to be, when they were winning a World Series and regularly getting to the NL Championship Series. They have three players — Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant — on the All-Star team. Gone are the days when the NL dugout looked like the Cubs Convention, Summer Edition.

The joyous public response to the team’s recent signing of closer Craig Kimbrel seemed more than just a celebration. There was a whiff of desperation to it, as if some fans were hoping he could not only solve any bullpen issues but also, if it wasn’t asking too much, improve the Cubs’ hitting with men in scoring position. Just a reminder: The team needs to have leads in the ninth for Kimbrel to get saves.

Remember when every move the Cubs made seemed to pay off? Now they plug up one hole in the levee and another one forms somewhere else. They sign Kimbrel, and then Kyle Schwarber strikes out with men on second and third with two outs.

After last season, team president Theo Epstein said the offense “broke somewhere along the line.” Including the regular season, tiebreaker and wild-card game, the Cubs had 40 games in which they scored one or no runs. The good news this year is that, so far, they’ve only had eight such games. The bad news is that, with runners in scoring position, they were hitting .243, third from last in the majors, entering Monday.

The Cubs have had some injuries. Their best starter, Cole Hamels, could be out for an extended period with the strained left oblique he suffered Friday. They’ll get Kyle Hendricks back on the mound this week. He has missed a couple of weeks with inflammation in his right shoulder.

But the team’s problems at the plate and on the road aren’t about injuries. They’re about a group of players that isn’t as good as other groups the Cubs have had. That’s life in a five- to seven-year window. Perhaps that changes as the season rolls on, but not if their pilot light keeps flickering when they’re on the road.

What we do know is that, after the series in Pittsburgh, the Cubs play two games against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field, which isn’t home but close enough. Then they play nine straight at Wrigley. If you’re looking for the Happy Cubs, you should find them there. Maddon will be there, too, without a worry in the world.

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