The Cubs opened their championship window in large part because of the investment on young hitters.

So their title defense season of 2017 will come down to living or dying by those young hitters.

There are plenty of other causes and reasons for the Cubs' 30-30 start entering Saturday: Inconsistent starting pitching, inconsistent defense, a possible hangover from playing past Halloween.

But the offense has been a major point of contention lately with Joe Maddon pointing to his team's inability to get the big hit as a major driving force behind the recent 0-6 road trip and current 0-3 stretch on the homestand.

After going 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position Friday, the Cubs are last in the National League with a .216 batting average in such situations. Only the Oakland A's are worse (.214 average) entering Saturday. The league average is .256 with runners in scoring position.

That's not to say the Cubs are struggling getting guys into scoring position.

Friday, the Cubs drew nine walks and were hit by two pitches, yet collected just three singles and three runs, drawing the ire of Maddon.

"That does speak to our approach with runners on base, which has been probably our most glaring deficiency this year because we're getting guys on base," Maddon said. "On-base percentage isn't bad and we've been hitting home runs lately, but the part of our game that's been the most lacking is our ability to move the baseball with people in scoring position once we've gotten them there.

 

"That's the area that we really have to get better at and focus on over the rest of the season. If we're able to do that, we're gonna score a lot of runs. But to this point, that's the part we've been lacking at, I think."

When the Cubs began the homestand 5-0, they hit .400 (12-for-30) with runners in scoring position and averaged more than 5.5 runs per game.

Maddon commended the success of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward at "moving the baseball" and accepting walks in the heart of the Cubs order. Yet there was Heyward striking out with the bases loaded to end Friday's game and Zobrist struck out with runners on second and third and only one out in the first inning Saturday.

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There is also more pressure on the veterans with a group of young hitters — Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javy Baez, Ian Happ, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr. — still trying to figure it out and develop at the big-league level.

One example was Baez's at-bat in a tie game in the third inning Friday, when he came up with the bases loaded and only one out. He ripped one home run distance down the left-field line, but foul. After fouling a couple others off, he took a big swing on a fastball that had run across the inner half of the plate and missed for out No. 2 and a blown chance to knock in a run with a productive out.

One batter later, Miguel Montero flied out to left field and the Cubs wound up with a scoreless frame.

"I think a lot of it is the young guys that have been really a little bit eager in those situations and that's kinda hurt us a little bit," Maddon said. "That's just teaching. That's just continually putting them out there to the point where they start becoming successful at it and all of a sudden, they start trending in the right direction.

"I just think we're hitting young this year. What I mean by that normally is the ball in the dirt, ball over your head that we're chasing and there's really no mechanical solution to that."

Maddon has been trying to find the right combination all season and utilized another different lineup Saturday, moving Schwarber back into the leadoff spot with Happ on the bench getting a breather.

As Maddon said, he doesn't believe the issue is mechanical, so he had plenty of nice things to say about Cubs hitting coach John Mallee as he works through these offensive struggles.

"John's outstanding at what he does," Maddon said. "It's a tough moment, I get it. But these are young hitters — really young hitters — that are going through a tough moment.

 

"You just gotta stay with them, you just keep working the plan and eventually it just comes back to you."