As Cubs rebuild, the gap’s widening in N.L. Central

As Cubs rebuild, the gap’s widening in N.L. Central
May 23, 2013, 11:00 pm
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PITTSBURGH – The Cubs saw the blank canvas here on Opening Day, hoping to build momentum with a good start and see a bounce from their young core players. They wanted to stay afloat until their high-adrenaline starter (Matt Garza), Gold Glove second baseman (Darwin Barney) and a few other pieces got healthy.

The Cubs actually won that first series, though the struggles of soon-to-be-ex-closer Carlos Marmol seemed to take up all the oxygen in the room. Almost two months later, the Pittsburgh Pirates swept them out of PNC Park.

After Thursday’s 4-2 loss, the last-place Cubs (18-28) looked up at everyone in the division and packed for another trip that could measure how far they still have to go in the National League Central. The Pirates (29-18), Cincinnati Reds (29-18) and St. Louis Cardinals (30-16) are all playing .600-plus ball and appear to be built to last.

Edwin Jackson didn’t care about the widening gap after another shaky outing, giving up four runs in the first two innings before getting knocked out by a rain delay in the top of the fourth that lasted one hour and 47 minutes.

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“I have no clue,” Jackson said. “I haven’t really paid attention to the standings. I couldn’t tell you who’s doing what right now. I’m just concerned about our team.”

Dale Sveum has no clue “why the same guy doesn’t come out all the time.” The manager didn’t see “a whole lot of life coming out of that arm.” Jackson is now 1-7 with a 6.11 ERA after signing that four-year, $52 million contract that was supposed to make him a foundational piece.

Up next this weekend: Dusty Baker’s Reds, who have won two of the last three division titles, adding Shin-Soo Choo to the top of a lineup that revolves around Joey Votto and putting 100 mph closer Aroldis Chapman behind a young rotation.

Did you see the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated? It spelled out “THE CARDINAL WAY” in all caps above this subhead: “Injuries? Superstar Free-agent Losses? Nothing Slows Baseball’s Model Organization…Past, Present and Future.”

Yes, the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992 and could be heading toward another second-half fade. But they could also have staying power with pitchers Gerrit Cole (the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft) and Jameson Taillon (No. 2 overall in 2010) waiting in the minors. Not to mention Andrew McCutchen (3-for-4, two RBI), who’s locked up long-term and looks like a perennial MVP candidate.

“It’s going to be one of the tougher divisions,” Sveum said. “No doubt about it.”

It felt like game over when Jackson put the team in a four-run hole. The Cubs wound up scoring six total runs during this three-game series and a just-off-the-disabled-list pitcher (Garza) drove in two of them on Tuesday night with his second career double.

Jason Grilli – a reliever the Cubs pursued over the winter – closed it out in the ninth inning on Thursday and is now 19-for-19 in save chances. Imagine what a hot streak like that could have done for this team.

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The Cubs haven’t started pointing fingers yet. You don’t hear the pitchers blaming the hitters or see players rolling their eyes at the coaching staff. There’s still the same low-key, professional vibe in the clubhouse, which illustrates one of Sveum’s strengths as a manager, his sense of calm.

“Everybody’s playing hard,” Jeff Samardzija said. “Everybody’s doing what they can to win these games and we’re right there. It’s just a play here, a play there. A hit here, a hit there and the game changes. Everyone’s trying to do their job. You got to find it somewhere.”

How far off are the Cubs from playing at this level? The big-picture questions aren’t going away. Neither are the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals.

“I don’t know, man,” said Starlin Castro, who dismissed any concerns about his ankle after an awkward slide trying to stretch a single into a double. “We got a pretty good team. Just keep it together and we can be competing with (those teams). Keep playing hard and see what happens.”

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