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As injuries pile up, so do losses for scoring-sapped Cubs

MIAMI – Another low scoring output, another close game, another loss, and another excuse for the Cubs to blame injuries and youthful imperfections for what has turned into their first four-game losing streak of the season.

They refuse to make that excuse, even after a 4-2 loss to the Miami Marlins on Thursday in which rookies Willson Contreras (seven days in the big leagues) and Albert Almora Jr. (17 days) started in place of injured veterans Anthony Rizzo and Dexter Fowler – both of whom are leading their positions in National League All-Star voting.

But the difference in this team right now and the first two months of the season is significant, especially in the lineup.

“I’m not down on anybody. We’ve got a really talented group,” said veteran catcher David Ross, whose home run in the eight tied the score before the Marlins scored twice against reliever Pedro Strop in the bottom of the inning.

Ben Zobrist hasn't had a hit since Monday as the Cubs have struggled to score during a four-game losing streak.

“But there’s a reason why the guys that were starting and that are injured were starting,” Ross said. “We’ve got to hold down the fort until those guys get back, and I think we’re capable of doing that. We’re just kind of learning on the fly right now.”

Contreras and Almora, in particular, have done nothing to suggest they haven’t earned their big-league opportunities – Contreras already with two home runs and hits in all four games he’s had an at-bat. Almora, the center fielder, has a .410 on-base percentage, five extra-base hits and an even bigger presence in the field.

But the team that romped to a 39-15 (.723) record through June 4 – scoring 5½ runs a game — is just 8-9 since as injuries have piled up among the hitters and the ability to scored has progressively dwindled.

“I don’t want to say it’s concerning,” said Jon Lester, who allowed just two solo homers in a seven-inning no-decision. “But at the same time we’re missing some pieces.

“Everybody wanted to crown everything at the end of May,” he said. “Like I kept saying, we’ve got to stay healthy. We’ve got to have these guys play every day, and our [pitching] staff’s got to stay healthy.”

Fowler, the leadoff hitter, could be back from his hamstring injury the final week before the All-Star break. Rizzo, whose back stiffened on Wednesday, could return Friday – or next week.

“It just needs to loosen up,” said Rizzo, who leads the team with 17 homers and 54 RBIs.

Until then, the Cubs are struggling to score.

Piling up the blowouts the first two months of the season, they failed to score at least three runs only eight times in their first 48 games.

In their last 23 games, they’ve scored two or fewer 10 times.

“You’re getting to that saturation point right now,” manager Joe Maddon said.

“But while we’re going through this moment, keeping our head above water, a lot of guys are getting experience,” Maddon said. “So, season in progress, we get deeper in the year, you get these guys back [from the DL] plus you add experience to the guys that we’re throwing out there now, and it should make things even better.

“So in some ways it looks like a negative, but I think it could turn out to be a huge positive.”

That’s one reason he plans to get the athletic catcher Contreras some time in the outfield – “almost like the program [Kyle] Schwarber was on [last year],” he said.

For now, “We’ve got to grind through this tough time,” Lester said. “This is – I don’t want to say make or break. It’s definitely not going to make or break our season. But at the same time, we’ve got to get through this point and get these guys back healthy because these are the guys that have gotten us here and these are the guys that are going to get us where we want to go.”