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Cubs crap out against woebegone Reds in 2-1 loss as Brewers gain game

Ben Zobrist, a World Series winner with the Kansas City Royals two years ago and a World Series MVP for the Cubs last fall, talked before Tuesday’s game about getting back in the lineup after his latest nagging body ache. Then he talked about a division race that looks nothing like last year’s.

Zobrist took one step forward — returning in the eighth inning and eventually driving in the Cubs’ only run — before the Cubs took one step back in a 2-1 loss to the last-place Cincinnati Reds after squandering late scoring opportunities.

With 44 games left, the Cubs are only 1½ games better than the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that nobody picked to be anywhere near the playoffs. They’ve lost eight of their last 13, and they’re bracing for a fight to the final days of the season, when they’ll face the St. Louis Cardinals and Brewers in eight of their last 11 games.

Zobrist, for one, said he wants to see some serious separation from the pack by then. But could there be a benefit in October for the on-again, off-again defending champs in a nail-biter race in the National League Central?

Pinch hitter Alex Avila strikes out looking with men on first and third to end the game Tuesday.

“Last year, it was nice to kind of cruise,” said Zobrist, who returned from a stiff neck and singled in Kyle Schwarber with one out in the ninth — with Jason Heyward reaching third on Zobrist’s hit before eventually being stranded there. “I worried more last year than I would this year if we make the playoffs, because last year, you know, if you kind of shut it off and then try to turn it back on, that can be difficult. I felt like we did a good job last year of turning it back on the last week, trying to get back into that playoff mode. This year, we know all the way through we’re going to have to be mentally there.”

If a close race is a good thing for the Cubs over these final six weeks, then consider Tuesday’s loss a blessed event as they flailed yet again with men in scoring position (1-for-9). They left 10 men on base — half in the final two innings.

Talk about Embrace the Suck. Kyle Hendricks’ best start since returning from the disabled list and a clutch, three-strikeout appearance by setup man Carl Edwards Jr. went for naught against a Reds rookie starter and a mediocre bullpen. The Cubs managed just two hits in six scoreless innings by impressive, hard-throwing Luis Castillo, who was making his first career start against them.

Seeing a kid with such good stuff for the first time made it hard to adjust, Heyward said.

The Cubs showed good fight, said manager Joe Maddon, who had “nothing to complain about.”

And if Hendricks, who pitched into the seventh with the kind of command that won him an ERA title last year, continues to look like this the rest of the way, the rotation could look whole again for the stretch run.

But if bad teams keep treating the Cubs like their personal playoff opponents — Heyward even called this a “playoff-like game” — and their allergies to men in scoring position continue, buckle up.

The loss was a lost opportunity for the Cubs to increase their 1½-game division lead over the second-place Cardinals, who lost in Boston. And the third-place Brewers beat the Pirates to move into a virtual tie with the Cards for second.

“We’re in a decent spot, but we’re not exactly where we want to be,” Zobrist said. “If the playoffs started now, we’d be in there. But we’d like to be playing even better than we are and kind of run away with the division if we could.”

The Cubs’ remaining schedule is certainly built for it. Tuesday’s game was the second of 13 straight against last-place teams. Seventeen more the rest of the way are against teams that currently have losing records.

“We really have to do the best we can to just keep the pedal to the metal and make sure we win our division, and everything else we’ll just address it as it comes,” Zobrist said.

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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