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Out of answers? Cubs’ six-week run of mediocrity raises long list of questions for July

The Pirates’ 18-5 rout of rookie Adbert Alzolay and the Cubs on Monday, including three homers by Josh Bell, underscored a growing number of problems for the Cubs.

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates
Adbert Alzolay’s uncompetitive start Monday raised more questions than it provided answers for a stressed Cubs rotation.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — Before the Cubs were routed 18-5 by the Pirates in the opener of a four-game series Monday at PNC Park, manager Joe Maddon said rookie starter Adbert Alzolay had pitched himself into the conversation for a role in the rotation in the second half.

“We have talked about that, and part of it is because he’s making us talk about it,” Maddon said, referring to the impression the touted prospect made in his first two big-league appearances. “He’s put himself into that mix, yes.”

Which raises the obvious next question: If two appearances can put him into the mix, how far can he get punted out of the rotation with a start as utterly uncompetitive as he had Monday?

Don’t answer.

Because that wasn’t even close to the most important question facing a team that has lived the definition of mediocrity for more than half the season.

After Alzolay gave up seven runs and 10 hits and failed to get out of the third inning, the Cubs had lost three of four to start a nine-game road trip and seven of their last 11.

It knocked them out of their share of first place in the National League Central and raised a growing list of questions as they near the All-Star break:

1. What are the Cubs going to do with their starting rotation?

Alzolay looked like a significant answer to help offset the loss of veteran Cole Hamels (oblique) until he trailed 4-0 just four batters into the game and needed 50 pitches to get through the first two innings.

The Cubs get Kyle Hendricks back from the injured list Tuesday, and that should get their rotation to the break before they’ll need to decide on Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood or another unforeseen answer to plug in no later than July 16.

Maddon said Alzolay’s performance is part of the conversation now, but he also wondered if Alzolay was tipping pitches the way the Pirates reacted to his curveball.

“I don’t know if, in fact, we were giving some stuff away or not,” he said.

But as Alzolay pointed out: “We all got hit tonight. … To me, it was just one of those days where you feel good but you feel like you don’t have your best pitches.”

2. What will the Cubs do for a bullpen in the next few days?

Chatwood should be ready to pitch long relief to back up Hendricks five days after he had a shaky, 90-pitch start last week. With the bullpen being overworked, Maddon used second baseman Daniel Descalso for an inning Monday. Also, closer Craig Kimbrel was in ninth-inning mop-up mode because he needed more work after just one save opportunity since joining the team Wednesday.

3. Will this team win a road series again?

The Cubs lost their fifth consecutive road series over the weekend and ninth overall this season.

They’re in danger — before the break — of matching their most road series losses (10) in a season since losing 15 in 2014. The Cubs’ 16-23 road record is the worst in the NL Central and second-worst in the NL to the Mets.

If they don’t reverse that trend fast, it won’t matter how well they play at home.

4. If this keeps up, what becomes of that already growing list of needs at the trade deadline, including left-handed relief, hitting depth, a leadoff option in an ideal world, etc.?

Better question: If this keeps up, what becomes of their status as buyers vs. sellers?

“We’ve got to play better in all facets,” Descalso said. “I don’t think the product that we put out on the field recently is indicative of the team that we have in here or the talent that we have in here.”

Starter Fluid

After Adbert Alzolay was clobbered by the Pirates in his second big-league start, these are the results in six starts by homegrown pitchers developed under Theo Epstein’s eighth-year regime:

GS IP ER K/BB ERA

Adbert Alzolay (’19) 2 7.1 8 7/5 9.82

Jen-Ho Tseng (’17-18)* 2 5.0 8 9/1 14.40

Duane Underwood (’18) 1 4.0 1 3/3 2.25

Rob Zastryzny (’16)* 1 3.2 0 4/2 0.00

*No longer in organization.