Cubs

Cubs seem to have lost their killer instinct

A few weeks ago, we broke the single-season record for asking the up-and-down Cubs if they knew who they were yet. The answer was right in front of us, in that up-and-down-ness.

They’re the team that recently won two of three games from the dangerous Dodgers, then immediately lost four in a row to the last-place Reds, including a game Sunday in which they blew a 6-1 lead.

That’s who the Cubs are. It’s who they’ve been for the last season and a half.

It doesn’t mean they’re mediocre. It means they’re a good team that can’t quite find it in themselves to be great.

Cubs pitcher Pedro Strop leaves the game after giving up four earned runs to the Reds in the seventh inning Sunday. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

It doesn’t mean they can’t be great, either, though you’d be right to be skeptical of a metamorphosis anytime soon. It means that almost halfway through the season, this is what they are. Again. They are very good for stretches and strangely, bizarrely unremarkable for others. And there’s nothing to suggest that a Joe Maddon rationalization, any Joe Maddon rationalization, is going to change that.

The four-game series against the Reds might be the low point of the season, simply because it came right after a hot streak. If you want to absorb a little more pain, tell yourself this: It wouldn’t be the 2018 Cubs if they had cruised into Cincinnati and crushed such an unworthy opponent. They started the season 11-10, went on a five-game winning streak, then lost the next five. That was followed by a five-game winning streak.

That’s the Cubs.

After a victory June 16 against the Cardinals, they were 13 games above .500, tied for a season high. Then they lost six of their next eight, thanks in large part to that sweep by the Reds.

That’s the Cubs.

On June 11, they moved into first place in the National League Central for the first time in almost six weeks, then fell into second place the next day. The same thing happened after taking two of three in that ‘‘big’’ series against the Dodgers last week. After moving to the top of the division standings Wednesday, they were back in second after a loss Thursday to the Reds.

That’s the Cubs.

There are no ‘‘We stinks’’ proclamations, a la Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs are still nine games above .500. But there is the realization that they’re a nice ballclub and that nice won’t be nearly good enough.

This is a team that can’t seem to put the hammer down. Tip your cap to the hot Reds, as Maddon asked us to do, but these are the Chicago flippin’ Cubs. They’re supposed to be better than this.

Do they still have that killer instinct, the one that helped them win Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when all seemed lost? We haven’t seen much of it in the last year and a half. We’ve seen a lot of outward confidence and California coolness. We haven’t seen a ruthlessness that the great teams in sports have.

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After last season ended, the Cubs finally admitted they had dealt with a bad World Series hangover but said they would be free of those distractions in 2018. Sorry: Since May 1, they’re 26-23.

Yes, they’ve been to three consecutive NL Championship Series. That has to figure into where they’ll be when the regular season ends. For right now, though, allowing the series against the Reds to play out the way it did is exactly who the Cubs are.

Maybe a trade-deadline acquisition of Orioles shortstop Manny Machado would help bring back that piercing focus on the prize. Perhaps the Cubs need some reinvigoration.

Maddon keeps giving Kris Bryant days off. No matter how the manager wants to spin it — rest for the weary, a sore shoulder, it’s a long season, the dog ate Bryant’s homework — it’s not a good sign. In the last two weeks, Bryant is hitting .214 with one home run, three walks and 15 strikeouts. Everybody goes through slumps. The Cubs seem particularly concerned about this one.

Yu Darvish hasn’t been the pitcher the Cubs thought they were getting. Or maybe he’s the pitcher they feared they were getting but didn’t want to believe they would get.

Albert Almora Jr. is this season’s Javy Baez. He has started only 47 of the Cubs’ 75 games, never mind the fact that he’s hitting .323. Google ‘‘Maddon-ing.’’ It’s popular in headlines.

Anything can happen in a long season. The Cubs could revert to being the kind of team that won 103 games in 2016. But there haven’t been many hints of it in the last 18 months.

Who are they? The answer has been right in front of us all along, sort of like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, which, by the way, would have been a complete violation of Major League Baseball uniform regulations. Remember when Ben Zobrist’s spikes controversy seemed semi-important? Feels like ages ago.

The Cubs are up and they’re down. They’re more up than down, but they’re not up enough. Not even close.

Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.