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Hendricks searching for answers after Cardinals expose Cubs

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Hendricks searching for answers after Cardinals expose Cubs

ST. LOUIS – Edwin Jackson is the easy target.

The $52 million reliever entered a tie game in the sixth inning and walked off the mound with the Cubs trailing 6-4 and the bases loaded. It became very quiet at Busch Stadium on Tuesday night. You could only imagine the boos if this happened at Wrigley Field.

This 7-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals magnified the issues surrounding a team trying to get to the next level. It’s not just Jackson. It’s The Cardinal Way, a wobbly rotation and an overexposed bullpen.

Kyle Hendricks exceeded all expectations when he got called up from Triple-A Iowa last season, filling the void after another summer sell-off and impressing everyone with his poise, intelligence and bottom-line results (7-2, 2.46 ERA in 13 starts).

Whether it’s the sophomore jinx, a confidence issue or something else, Hendricks hasn’t looked like the same guy in 2015. His pinpoint control is missing. He walked two Cardinals, hit another and doesn’t have that much margin for error. He lasted only five innings and couldn’t maintain any sense of momentum.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

“The feel is just not there,” Hendricks said afterward, standing in front of his locker and looking a little dazed. “You got to change something up and find it. Got to get out of it somehow.”

Minutes after the Cubs built up a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning, Hendricks surrendered a three-run homer to Matt Carpenter. That left the game in the hands of middle relievers, an area the Cubs targeted with a series of roster moves before Tuesday’s game.

The Cubs noticed how the Kansas City Royals rode a lockdown bullpen to the World Series last season and hoped they could use a similar blueprint with all those power arms and manager Joe Maddon pushing all the right buttons.

Injuries to Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez changed the equation, leaving the Cubs (13-12) in scramble mode, already trailing the Cardinals (20-6) by 6.5 games in the division.

“We’re not pitching to our capabilities,” Maddon said. “We were kind of beat up a little bit with some of our guys who are not here, which probably would have made a huge difference by now. But that happens to everybody, not just us. So you have to fight through and other guys have to pick up the slack. We just haven’t done that.

“You look at what we’ve done this year. We’re still over .500. We’d be at least in pretty good shape right now if we had done a better job handling the middle part of the ballgame. We’re missing two really nice pitchers in Ramirez and Grimm. The other guys, we just have to give them the ball and just get that moment done. It’s pretty obvious…we have to keep leads.”

Hendricks is now winless through five starts – none lasting longer than six innings – and stuck with a 5.61 ERA. General manager Jed Hoyer gave Hendricks a vote of confidence before the game and it didn’t sound like the Cubs had any immediate plans to shake up their rotation after restructuring their bullpen.

“We’re not worried about him at all,” Hoyer said. “He’s a feel pitcher. As he gets on the mound more often, and gets his feel down, he has so many ways to get you out. I think he’ll be just fine.”

[MORE: Cubs shake up bullpen with James Russell and Anthony Varvaro]

Maddon wasn’t around for Hendricks’ breakout rookie season. But the Cubs aren’t holding auditions now and won’t have the same player-development leash this season.

“I have a lot of faith in this guy,” Maddon said. “We’re talking about the fact that the ball doesn’t have that typical sink, because he really reads as a heavy groundball pitcher and you’re not seeing that right now. That tells you the pitch is more flat than down. That’s the primary (issue). In conjunction with that, (there are) a lot of deep counts, getting behind in the count and permitting the hitters to have better at-bats.”

You wonder if that feel could be found in Des Moines and how soon someone like Tsuyoshi Wada could get a shot at the rotation. Given Hendricks’ struggles, could we see a change in the rotation next time around?

“No,” Maddon said. “I believe in the guy.”

It’s up to $155 million ace Jon Lester to stop a four-game losing streak on Wednesday night against the best team in baseball.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Cubs split Crosstown and Adbert Alzolay is called up

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Cubs split Crosstown and Adbert Alzolay is called up

Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki check in from Wrigley Field after the Cubs split the first leg of the Crosstown Classic with the White Sox.

Kelly and Tony discuss the breaking news of top pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay's promotion to the big leagues and what his role could be with the Cubs (2:15), and assess where the Cubs stand as they continue their long homestand, including the recent offensive downturn and Yu Darvish taking a step forward (7:30).

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Joe Maddon perplexed by the way baseballs are jumping this year: 'It's extraterrestrial'

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USA TODAY

Joe Maddon perplexed by the way baseballs are jumping this year: 'It's extraterrestrial'

On a mid-June night that felt more like the first week of April, the Cubs and White Sox combined for 2,029 feet of homers. 

As Leury Garcia hit Jon Lester's first pitch of the game 429 feet Wednesday evening, the reported temperature was in the mid 50s with winds blowing in from left field at 7 mph. That's not as chilly or windy as some of the games the Cubs have played this season, but it's still certainly not ideal hitting conditions at Wrigley Field.

Yet five home runs peppered the left and center field bleachers in the Cubs' 7-3 victory and prompted veteran manager Joe Maddon to bemuse about the way the ball is jumping around baseball today.

"Difficult conditions, but again — wind blowing in at a gale, it seemed, balls flying out easily," Maddon said after the game. "The home run that [James] McCann hit, my god, that just took off. You could actually see it from the field. You watch the flags [blowing in], it gets there, then all of a sudden it took off like a UFO. It stood still, then it took off. The first home run of the game, the first pitch, I mean my god, that ball went far. 

"I don't know what I'm witnessing. The way the ball is coming off the bat right now, it's extraterrestrial. It's like an ET kind of a thing going on out there. It's crazy. This is my fifth year here and I know what I've seen. Whenever the wind is blowing in like that, you don't see that. You don't see that."

Lester worked around those two homers from Garcia and McCann to pick up his 6th win, thanks in large part to the power supplied from his own teammates. Catcher Willson Contreras mashed his 14th and 15th homers of the season (after hitting only 10 all of last year) and David Bote smashed his 9th. 

Overall this season, the Cubs have been on an insane home run barrage, on pace to blow past the franchise mark for longballs in a year. Contreras reaching the 15-homer plateau puts five Cubs in that club this season. No other MLB team has more than three players who have reached that mark.

"I just know the ball's leaving," Maddon said. "I don't know if it's another year of maturity, but it's not just us. It's industry-wide. So it's hard to just say that we're the outlier with all this going on. I still want to see the better approach with runners in scoring position." 

Six weeks ago, Lester brought up the juiced baseball discussion after a start against the Marlins, saying he and other pitchers would like to know if MLB is juicing the baseballs. The league hasn't openly stated anything is different with the baseballs, though home runs are up at an astronomical rate across the board — in both the majors and Triple-A. And we haven't even gotten into the summer weather yet, when the ball really starts flying on warm evenings.

When asked for his thoughts on the baseballs Wednesday night, Lester shrugged it off.

"No comment," he said. "We can sit here and talk until we're blue in the face about the ball. It is what it is. Every pitcher in the big leagues has to pitch with it. You can comment on it all you want, but it just sounds like an excuse. I don't make excuses. Gotta make better pitches."