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Cubs lose 9-0 to last-place Royals ahead of nine-game litmus test

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – So much for that soft week on the schedule for the Cubs to gorge and pack on a few extra games to their lead in the National League Central.

Seven games against last-place teams resulted in a 4-3 stretch for the Cubs that ended with a 9-0 loss to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday night – leaving them only a half-game better in the standings than they began.

Now it gets hot as they head into the middle of August.

“You think we should just dwell on it?” said leadoff hitter Anthony Rizzo, who hasn’t scored a run since Saturday. “We have the Nationals coming into town, and they’re playing good baseball. Hopefully that elevates us. We’re due for a roll somewhere.”

Jose Quintana kept the deficit to 2-0 Wednesday until allowing a three-run homer to Adalberto Mondesi in the seventh.

After taking Thursday off, the Cubs play their next nine against the Nationals, second-place Brewers and upstart Pirates.

It could be the stretch that finally creates some separation for the Cubs at the top of the division – or sets the tone for a six-week dogfight to the end of the season.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of space created the rest of the year by anybody,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of a tightly packed National League in which 10 teams have winning records – all within five games of playoff position.

“I think it’s going to be kind of like what you’re seeing,” Maddon said.

What the Cubs saw Wednesday night was the continuation of a trend that has bugged the manager since they came back from the All-Star break.

A lineup that has gotten away from the all-fields approach that led to an early July surge into first place disappeared again Wednesday night against some guy named Heath Fillmyer.

By the time Drew Butera delivered the Royals’ first extra-base hit of the series – a two-run double off Jose Quintana in the second – the Royals had enough runs for the rookie making his fifth career start.

The right-hander pitched seven innings, allowing just three singles – only one until the seventh – for his first big-league win.

“The pitching and hitting have to get hot at the same time to create space,” Maddon said of a team that finally put together a three-game streak in which the starters lasted at least six innings each.

“We’d have to really pitch more deeply into games as starters, and we’d have to really get on the offensive gas pedal [to separate],” Maddon said. “If you don’t do those things simultaneously, then you’re hoping to play several games over .500 and do the slow stretch as opposed to anything quickly.”

Welcome to the Cubs’ 2018 season in a nutshell.

They’re a tepid 11-10 since the All-Star break – with a rotation ERA of 5.14 and a lineup averaging almost a run fewer per game (4.2) than before the break (5.1).

They’ve looked far enough into this next stretch to take advantage of two off days in the next week to manipulate the rotation.

Mike Montgomery, the sixth-starter fill-in who provided six scoreless innings in a victory Tuesday night, is on pace for a career-high workload and is expected to get pushed back a turn the next time through the rotation – keeping everybody else on close to normal schedules.

That move assures Quintana and Kyle Hendricks land in the two-game series against the Brewers. They’re 3-0 with a 1.74 ERA in five combined starts against Milwaukee this season.

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Quintana looked strong Wednesday until running into a trouble in the seventh as a 2-0 game quickly got away on two singles and a three-run homer.

“I feel really bad with this outing, like how I threw the ball is not [indicative] of the score,” he said. “Turn the page.”

These next nine games?

“I’m sure it will define our season, good or bad,” Rizzo cracked. “There’s so much baseball left; we’ve got to play good from here on out.”