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Starts and fits: Cub rotation big part of woes, key to what comes next

Blame the Cubs’ awful production at the plate. The lineup certainly deserves plenty of it.

Or blame the team’s poor start on an inexplicable decline in fielding at several positions (only three teams have allowed more unearned runs than the Cubs’ 27).

Or even blame #FakeNews — the idea that this 25-27 start only seems so terrible because of unfair expectations after last season.

But save the real blame and scrutiny for a rotation that might be “trending,” as manager Joe Maddon likes to say, but remains the biggest reason for the Cubs’ starts and fits.

Dressed for success? Jon Lester and John Lackey may hold the the keys to where the Cubs' season goes from here.

And the biggest cause for concern.

And, maybe, the biggest chance for salvation.

“It starts on the mound,’’ Kyle Hendricks said. ‘‘We’re the ones with the ball in our hands, so we’re the ones that have to stop it, regardless of how the offense is going.”

Hendricks, who led the majors with a 2.13 ERA last year, has been one of the bright spots since a rough three-start stretch to open the season. He has a 2.81 ERA in seven starts since then.

But even he was tagged for five runs — including a grand slam — in his start during the Cubs’ just-concluded 0-6 road trip to Southern California.

It was a four-batter sequence building to the slam that turned that game Monday after he had retired the first 10 Padres.

That’s part of why Maddon keeps saying, “I think our starters are going in the right direction,” as he did again after Jake Arrieta’s strong start in a 2-1 loss Wednesday.

But the Hendricks moment also underscores the lack of margin this team is working with and the kind of hard hits that are undoing a rotation that led the majors last year with a 2.96 ERA and 100 quality starts and returned its top four starters.

“If we throw up zeros, we’ve got a good chance of winning,” Hendricks said. “Giving up four or five in five games, that’s not what we’ve got to be doing right now.

‘‘It’s not necessarily putting pressure on us, but it’s got to start with us on the mound.”

The Cubs are still waiting for it to start.

Two months in, the rotation has a 4.64 ERA (22nd in the majors) and 20 quality starts (25th).

Brett Anderson was a poor replacement for fifth starter Jason Hammel before going on the disabled list early in May. Eddie Butler has been mostly disappointing as a replacement for Anderson.

John Lackey, 38, had a scoreless seven-inning start in Colorado but a 5.90 ERA in his other nine starts. He has allowed 10 earned runs (including five homers) in 15„ innings since the start against the Rockies.

The rotation didn’t have a quality start during the winless trip until Arrieta’s six-inning start. It allowed 26 runs in 23‰ innings the first five games of the trip (9.89 ERA).

Arrieta has looked sharper in recent starts, adding some velocity and an effective curveball. Jon Lester threw the staff’s only complete game barely a week ago. And Hendricks might be in the midst of a strong run.

But the home runs are up, the margin for error is way down, the questions are up and the front office is well down the road in its search for pitching help as it eyes the trade deadline less than two months away.

“The quickest way that our season can get hamstrung is if we suffer an injury or two with our starting staff,” team president Theo Epstein said.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on the current group of healthy starters — even swing lefty Mike Montgomery, who soon could get his shot to start.

That group figures to be the key to whether the Cubs go anywhere this year, and how far.

“Starting pitching is where it starts and ends,” Arrieta said. “If we’re able to alleviate some of the pressure and some of the thought that we’re going to have to score five or six runs to win today, then we’ll be OK.

“That’s our job as starting pitchers, to set the tone.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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