May 08, 2017

CHICAGO (AP) The Chicago Cubs made it look so easy last season it was almost hard to envision the difficulties they are experiencing this year.

Yet here are the defending champions, third in the NL Central after getting swept at home by the AL East-leading New York Yankees in a weekend series that ended with a record-setting marathon. The two teams played 18 innings on Sunday and set a major league mark by combining for 48 strikeouts.

The Cubs haven't hit the way they would like. They haven't pitched the way they hoped. And at 16-15 entering Monday, they are way off the pace they set a year ago when they jumped out to a 25-6 start and ran away with the division.

''It's hard to go 25-6 on an annual basis,'' manager Joe Maddon said. ''I'm with these guys. Conversationally and watching them, (looking) in their eyes - they're engaged. There's no haziness, no fuzziness, no lack of engagement on their part. Teams have played pretty well against us, too.''

Even so, it was a bit jarring to see the Cubs looking up ever so slightly at Cincinnati and St. Louis in the division after Sunday's loss, which dropped them to 7-9 at Wrigley Field. Chicago spent all but one day in first place last season on the way to 103 wins and its first championship since 1908.

The Cubs can take some comfort in this: There were only three games separating first and last in the NL Central and the 2015 team also got off to a 16-15 start and wound up breaking out with 97 wins and a trip to the NLCS.

But there clearly is work to do.

While reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant is off to a strong start with a .302 average, six homers and 16 RBIs through Sunday, some key pieces of the lineup were struggling. Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber were all hitting .230 or below. The Cubs were 16th in the majors in batting average, though they were seventh in runs and on-base percentage.

As for the pitching, Chicago brought the starters along slowly in spring training coming off the championship run. Even so, Maddon had no real explanation for the inconsistencies on a staff led by 2016 NL Cy Young Award runner-up Jon Lester, 2015 winner Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks.

Other than a slight drop in Hendricks' velocity, he sees no major change in their pitches. Mentally and physically, he said, his rotation is in good shape.

Lester (1-1, 3.27 ERA) and Hendricks (2-1, 3.51) appear to be rounding into form after some rough patches, though Arrieta (4-1, 4.63) had struggled heading into Monday's start at Colorado. The back end of the rotation has also been an issue with John Lackey (5.14 ERA) and Brett Anderson (8.18 ERA), who has a lower back strain.

''They need to get in a groove, you know, and I think the whole team needs to get in a groove right now,'' catcher Miguel Montero said.

It would help if the Cubs weren't getting clubbed early in games. Opponents have pounded them in the first inning to the tune of a major league-leading 41 runs and 11 homers through 31 games.

That's taxing a strong bullpen that had worked more innings than any other in the majors through Sunday as well as a lineup that too often is being asked to wipe out an early deficit.

''As a pitcher you want the lead, and that's the same with position players,'' Rizzo said. ''You always want to be within striking distance of the lead and we usually are. Playing from behind is good for us to come together as a team, but at the same time we also want to just boat race and score runs right from the get-go. A win's a win no matter how it comes and every day is different.''

The Cubs have played tough and high-profile series to start the season, including visits to St. Louis and Boston and home dates against the Dodgers and the red-hot Yankees.

''We've had a good, tough schedule travel-wise and I think we've shown up every day and played,'' Rizzo said. ''Played really well, and we've just got to keep battling. We have a tough division, the good thing is it's the first year in a while a team hasn't just ran away in the first month. It's going to be a long process.''

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