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Inside Baseball: Cubs struggling to recreate magic of 2016

CHICAGO – The memories of 2016 linger all over Wrigley Field and its now construction-filled neighborhood. And that's one of the problems the Chicago Cubs have: Things will never be quite that magical again. You can only win your first World Series in 108 years one time.

Then life and the calendar roll on. It just hasn't been easy for the Cubs in 2017.

They might still make the postseason and get their chance at a repeat but that's largely because the National League Central is lousy this year. The Cubs hit the weekend a mediocre 37-36 but were only 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers for the division lead. They were 48-25 at the same point last year.

"I'm enjoying it in a perverse way," manager Joe Maddon said during last week's series against San Diego at Wrigley. "I'd rather we be 10 games up, but I'm good with what's going on right now. It is challenging."

The challenges have been numerous.

The offense has already been shut out six times, equaling last year's total, and the team batting average of .239 is second-last in the majors to the no-name Padres. The .227 mark with runners in scoring position is dead last. World Series hero Kyle Schwarber was mercifully sent to Triple-A on Thursday to try to clear his head about his .171.

Team Inconsistent was on display again this week as the Cubs were held to just two hits in Wednesday's series-closing 3-2 loss to the Padres, rolled to an 11-1 win in Thursday's series opener in Miami and then got shut out, 2-0, by the mediocre Marlins on Friday night.

Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and pitcher Kyle Hendricks are all on the disabled list. Dexter Fowler left for St. Louis via free agency. David Ross retired. Addison Russell is batting .234 and dealing with messy rumors that had his wife file for divorce last week.

And the starting pitching simply isn't anywhere near what it was in 2016. Jake Arrieta is 7-5 with a 4.36 ERA after finishing last year at 18-8, 3.10. John Lackey (11-8, 3.35 in 2016) is just 5-7, 4.98, Jon Lester is 4-4, 3.83 compared to 19-5, 2.44 and Hendricks is 4-3, 4.09, a far cry from 16-8, 2.13.

The lack of offense has put tremendous pressure on the pitching. With Fowler gone, the leadoff spot has been troublesome. Schwarber overstayed his welcome there and Maddon finally forged a turnaround out of desperation, installing first baseman Anthony Rizzo into the top rung of the batting order and getting instant results.

The view from the press box as a sellout crowd watches the Cubs and Padres Wednesday in Wrigley Field (Mike Harrington/Buffalo News).

The Cubs rolled the Mets, 14-3, in the first game after Maddon's lineup shuffle sparked by a first-inning leadoff homer from Rizzo. They went 4-2 in the first six games as Rizzo led them off by going homer, homer, walk, single, double, bunt single, homer. The last one was a 432-foot blast to dead center that was all the Cubs needed in a 4-0 win over the Padres.

"On a nightly basis he's been ready," Maddon said. "He's ready, he's chirpy, he's ready to go, he's loving this and he's helping us out incredibly."

"It's great. It's funny," said Rizzo, who made the putout for the ages on the final groundball to wrap up Game Seven last November in Cleveland. "I'm sure my teammates are starting to get a little tired of it. I'm constantly in their ears non-stop telling them to make sure they don't miss it, that its going to be 1-0. All in good fun of course."

Rizzo, who entered the weekend with team highs of 17 homers and 47 RBIs, is taking advantage of the quick starts by seeing a bevy of fastballs. Asked if he was surprised by that, he pointed out his presence at the top of the order doesn't allow pitchers to settle into a game.

"You have to think of it the other way," he said. "Imagine how uncomfortable it is for pitchers leading off the game trying to throw offspeed for a strike that soon. They don't want to be doing that."

Elias Sports said Rizzo is the only player in the last 60 years to reach in his first plate appearance in each of his first seven career games batting leadoff. It's the longest run for a Cubs player since at least 1946, equaling a run by Richie Ashburn in 1960.

"Hey, I saw Richie Ashburn's name pop up on the scoreboard and I could not believe that," Maddon said of the longtime former big-league outfielder. "Whenever you have your name on a board compared to Richie Ashburn, that's significant. That's pretty cool."

Rizzo said it's a little different leading off at home, where you have to play defense before batting. On the road, he can grab a bat and hack first-thing on the field. He's getting plenty of chances. The Cubs are on an 11-day trip and in a stretch where 17 of 20 games are away from the Friendly Confines.

They had lost six straight series on the road until taking two of three from the Pirates last week, their first road series win since April.

"It comes back to 'control the controllables' and I say that a lot," Maddon said. "Control what you can do. You go on the road and you just do it. We've played well the last two series here. That's a good sign. You hope it continues."

Construction zone

One thing that continues is all the work outside. The Cubs need to maximize revenue, as there's only so much you can squeeze out of a 102-year-old ballpark.

A large office building and grassy plaza with a video screen has been erected outside the left-field corner where a parking lot once stood. Directly across the street from the famous Wrigley marquee at Clark and Addison (where a McDonald's and souvenir shops were for decades) is the growing site of Hotel Zachary, a 175-room boutique hotel that will also include restaurants – and replace the iconic McDonald's.

The Cubs' new office building and team shop in Wrigley's new outdoor plaza

Inside, the bleachers were expanded again after last season while all the seats around home plate were ripped out and four rows were added at field level down both foul lines as the bullpens were relocated under the bleachers behind the fence.

The Cubs opened a massive new clubhouse last year (it's an unmarked door in the concourse behind third base, leading to a staircase and long corridor built under the park), and will unveil several new club-level spaces in coming seasons. Jumbotrons now do their thing at Wrigley but the place still maintains the charm of yesteryear with the manually operated scoreboard in center field chugging along and the outfield ivy still resplendent.

Road trippers should still have Wrigley as a bucket list item on their itineraries and here's a key tip: Take the official tour whether it's game day or not. Tour guides are experts in the history of the Cubs and the ballpark and provide an entertaining experience. Plus you get to go all over to see areas not normally for fans, like the field, dugout and press box.

The press box is a shrine of old photos of days gone by with Harry Caray, including a look in his booth. In the hall are pictures of Wrigley history, from Caray with President Ronald Reagan to the Bears to the 2009 NHL Winter Classic between the Blackhawks and Detroit.

Hotel Zachary under construction outside Wrigley Field.

Standings Watch

Look it up. Things are pretty much over in the National League before we even hit July. Somebody is going to have to endure a massive collapse for anything to change.

The Nationals hit the weekend with a nine-game lead in the NL East and the Mets are such a disaster that it's clear they're ready to be sellers. Meanwhile, the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies are all playing .600 ball, and the Cubs are 8 1/2 out in the wild-card race, thus in a division-or-bust mentality to get back to the postseason.

The Dodgers and Diamondbacks, managed by Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famers Dave Roberts and Torey Lovullo, have combined to go 56-20 at home. The Rockies, directed by ex-Buffalo pitching coach Bud Black, have not been as dominant at home as usual but are an out-of-character 25-14 away from Coors Field after losing Friday's series opener in Los Angeles.

Blue days for Jays

The Blue Jays aren't going anywhere until they can crack the .500 mark and it's just become comical watching them try to do it. For a team that started 1-9 and 6-17, getting to .500 in June would be a pretty good accomplishment.

But Toronto is 0-9 when its record pushes to within one game of the break-even point – the first team to lose its first nine shots at .500 since the 1923 St. Louis Browns (according to Elias and Sportsnet).

The numbers are astonishing. The Blue Jays have been outscored, 73-24, in the nine games with a team batting average of .227 and a team ERA of 7.82.

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